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Report: 250 Americans Have Gone To Syria And Iraq To Fight


The United States is failing to stop Americans from joining ISIS. That's the conclusion of a report from House investigators. It comes out today, and NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is in our studios. She has some details in advance. Dina, good morning.


INSKEEP: I guess we should mention it's a House Homeland Security Committee. This is described as a bipartisan report. What did the investigators find?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, sources who've seen the report say the big take-away is that just arresting people at the airport doesn't seem to be making much of a dent in the number of people who are getting to Syria to fight.

INSKEEP: Oh, and is that the main thing that they do, try to catch people in the screening process?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's one of the big things that they've been doing. And there's some numbers from the report that illustrate this point. In the past two - in the past two years, more than 250 Americans have left the U.S. to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. And of those 250 Americans, only several dozen have been arrested. Another handful of people were picked up in other countries. But the majority of these U.S. travelers - 85 percent, the report says - were able to leave the U.S. and join up with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. So clearly this strategy, to stop them before they leave, isn't working. And what's more, the report says, ISIS has gotten more popular. Most of the aspiring fighters who are leaving are now specifically going to ISIS. And that's a change from last year.

INSKEEP: Oh, as opposed to going to other terror groups someplace else.


INSKEEP: Authorities must worry that Americans who go overseas, who join up with ISIS, might get trained in some fashion and come back to the United States and blend in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or attack. That's certainly one of the concerns. But apparently not a lot of Americans are coming back. The report, which is based on both classified and unclassified briefings, said that about two dozen Americans have returned. And a handful of those people have been arrested. Some Americans are being killed there. But most of them are becoming recruiters. And by using social media, they're getting their friends to join them in Syria. You know, we've reported on this. It's called peer-to-peer recruiting. And that's what's happening in Minneapolis. A handful of high school friends in the Somali-American community had a friend who'd already gone to Syria, joined ISIS. And he convinced them to come and join him.

INSKEEP: And that's got to be powerful recruiting, when you hear from somebody you know who's over in Syria. So what do the investigators who are concerned about this say should be done about it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we've heard a lot about Turkey, which is the jump-off point for people going to Syria.


TEMPLE-RASTON: About not being particularly vigilant at the border. The report suggests that that's gotten better and that the report is happy that's starting to happen. Four years ago, Turkey's watch list literally just had a couple of hundred names on it. But as of July of this year, apparently it contained, according to the report, 14,000 names from all over the world. So that's - that's an improvement. But the report was also very critical of what it called lax passport controls in Europe. Apparently, European allies are not vetting EU citizens against terrorism watch lists. Even basic screening measures, like looking at someone's photo on their passport to make sure it's really them, those aren't happening at European airports and border crossings. And there's still no agreement between European countries on rules to do this. So that's a huge security loophole that the report says needs to be remedied.

INSKEEP: OK, so so many opportunities to stop people of interest. They're not being stopped very often at U.S. airports. They're not being stopped very often when they pass through Europe. They're sometimes now being stopped when they get to Turkey. But many get through to Syria. Can I go back to the beginning of this process though, Dina? Is there an effort somehow to prevent people from becoming radicalized and beginning that trip to begin with?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we've been doing a lot of reporting from Minneapolis about this because the Twin Cities have the highest number of local young people trying to go to Syria and fight with ISIS. There's been some discussion about something they call off-ramping. The idea is if a parent thinks their child might be getting recruited or sucked in by ISIS or extremist ideology, there'd be a program that they could be put in to set them straight.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's almost like parents being told, if you see something, say something.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And if you see something, let us know, and we'll try and help.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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