For the first time since the U.S. began a massive bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, American officials say they have achieved some success in slowing the flow of foreign fighters streaming across the Turkish border into the group’s self-declared caliphate.
But U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News the modest improvement hasn’t significantly changed the strategic picture, despite the positive spin by a top general to reporters this week.
A new estimate by U.S. intelligence agencies shows that the total number of foreign fighters on the battlefield has increased by 6,000 since last fall, to 36,500, the officials say. A year ago, the number was 20,000.
The CIA and other agencies have also documented an uptick in the number of Islamic State recruits going to Libya, a lawless, chaotic country that is quickly becoming an alternative safe haven for the terror group, American officials say.
“There’s been some progress, but I don’t think we are fully where we want to be,” Ben Rhodes, a top White House foreign policy adviser, said Friday at a Bloomberg lunch with reporters in Washington.
Rhodes said it will take years to defeat the Islamic State, and Obama’s ambition in the last months of his presidency is to put the group “on a path to defeat.”
Even if the U.S.-led coalition pushes the group out of the cities and towns it holds in Iraq and Syria, Rhodes said, it will remain for several years a potent terrorist force with tentacles around the Middle East. The U.S. will then have to “grind them down…like we did with al Qaeda.” The al Qaeda campaign has involved a decade of drone strikes and special operations raids.
He added, “As you deny (ISIS) territory, they get more focused in some respects on external operations,” meaning terrorist attacks against the West.
Read more: NBC