President Obama made many reassuring remarks in last night’s State of the Union address. For example, he reminded the nation that he had assembled a coalition of over 60 countries to “stop the flow of terrorist fighters.”
What he left out was that this coalition is weak and ineffective. It has completely failed to thwart one of the most powerful forces fueling contemporary transnational terrorism.
Recruiting networks funnel foreign fighters to terrorist camps where they are trained, indoctrinated and then dispatched around the world to spread extremism and terror. It’s nothing new. Islamist extremists in Afghanistan established the practice in the 1980s. It was pioneered by shadowy Haqqani Network to fight the Russians. The Haqqani’s then pressed the Taliban let Osama bin Laden to come to Afghanistan to set-up camps for training the next generation of Mujahideen.
In every conflict since then, Islamist extremist groups have followed this template to suck in foreign fighters. This was how al Qaeda channeled fighters into Iraq to wage an insurgency during the U.S. occupation there.
Two reports from the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point shed light on that operation. One report analyzes the records of nearly 700 foreign nationals who entered Iraq between 2006 and 2007. The other documents how fighters were organized, financed and led.
With the rise of ISIS, the administration should have anticipated that foreign fighter networks would be set up to funnel extremists into and out of Syria and Iraq. Yet no proactive action was taken.
As a result, tens of thousands of foreign fighters have already flowed through these pipelines to spill onto the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. Last year, UN officials estimated the number at 25,000. And despite the increased recognition by Western countries that the pipelines represent a serious threat, they have not been turned down, much less shut off.
Obama wasn’t lying when he said there is a coalition working against foreign fighter pipelines. In 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution aimed at stemming the flow of foreign fighters in and out of conflict zones.
But, resolutions aside, the countries participating in the coalition represent an admixture of effort. Many lack the capacity to do much; some lack the will. Taken as a whole, this coalition is completely inadequate to stem the terrorist tide.
A far more serious international effort to shut down terrorist travel is needed. That would require the U.S. to work through a web of bilateral and multi-national initiatives to cut off the flow at key choke points. In addition, the U.S. will have to lead an effort that goes to the heart of the problem: crushing ISIS territorial control in Iraq.
Shutting down the foreign fighter pipeline ought to be integrated with a more serious effort to thwart international terrorist travel. Last year the House Homeland Security Committee issued a report laying out a number of steps Congress could take to help. There is also legislation pending in the Senate that would facilitate information-sharing to thwart terrorist activities.
Empty words in the State of the Union aside, the administration could do much in its last year to facilitate Congressional action, build a better coalition, and speed the effort to take down ISIS. Such efforts, however, would demand real effort rather than fatuous, feel-good claims of progress.
James Carafano Vice President of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes and can be viewed in full at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamescarafano/2016/01/13/flood-of-foreign-fighters-biggest-failure-glossed-over-in-state-of-the-union/#2715e4857a0b62008f5865cc