(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. military believes around one thousand aspiring jihadists from the Asia-Pacific region have traveled to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), with most recruited via social media.
“Our estimations today is there’s probably been about one thousand potential aspiring fighters that have moved from this region,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said Thursday, adding that the number could grow.
PACOM was “paying very close attention” to the issue and working closely with allies and partners in its area of responsibility, and with U.S. Central Command, which covers Iraq and Syria and is overseeing the anti-ISIS mission, he said.
“We’re working very closely with Central Command to ensure that we can sense and understand from their perspective the flow of foreign fighters or aspiring foreign fighters that may be coming out of the Indo-Asia Pacific region,” Locklear told a briefing at the Pentagon.
PACOM’s area of responsibility stretches from India eastward. Locklear said he did not have a breakdown, but among the 36 nations his command covers are countries with some of the world’s largest Muslim populations, including India, Indonesia and Bangladesh: as well as others where Islamist radicals have been active in recent years, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, China and Australia.
Locklear said PACOM was having a “robust dialogue” with countries in the region “about this particularly difficult problem.”
“I can tell you that I believe most of them have been recruited via social media,” he said. “Social media appears to be the place where ISIL has been – that type organization and al-Qaeda have been – particularly effective at reaching out and finding these people who would have a tendency to want to go toward a terrorist organization.”
Many terrorist foreign fighters heading to Syria or Iraq from countries beyond the Middle East are believed to have traveled to the conflict zone from Europe via Turkey.
Locklear disagreed with a reporter who suggested that it was more difficult for would-be ISIS fighters to travel from the Asia-Pacific, although he said he would be speculating on exactly how they got there.
“I think that true globalization and the interdependencies we have through business and commerce and everything else, that it’s relatively easy for someone who wants to to be able to move to a region such as Syria or Iraq, to get involved – if they think about it and they are enabled and they have the ability for someone to provide them the resources to get there.”
‘Pivot’ still a priority
In 2011 the Obama administration first announced a “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia-Pacific, but its promise was almost immediately put under strain as multiple crises in the Middle East and, later, Ukraine appeared repeatedly to draw America’s attention away from the Asia-Pacific.
With security challenges like those posed by North Korea, China, and the tensions in the South and East China Seas falling under PACOM’s responsibilities, Locklear was asked whether the attention and resources directed at the ISIS problem was having an impact on the pivot.
“From a military perspective, even as a campaign like ISIL would be going on, our ability to remain forward and do the things we need to do in the Pacific will not be affected in any significant way,” he said.
Locklear noted that important events were coming up in the region, including the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China, the East Asia Summit in Burma, and the G20 summit in Australia. President Obama is scheduled to attend all three events, within days of each other in November.
“So it’s not like the world has just kind of walked away because of the Middle East,” Locklear added.
He said the message of the rebalance, both to Asians and Americans, was that “the Asia-Pacific will remain important to the United States forever” and that “much of the future security of the United States, our interests, will be tied to what happens in the Asia-Pacific.”
“So even with a threat like ISIL, we will – we cannot walk away from our responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific. And as the president just mentioned in his speech at the U.N., we won’t”
In a speech in New York Wednesday dominated by the ISIS terrorist threat, Obama devoted four sentences to Asia:
“America is and will continue to be a Pacific power, promoting peace, stability, and the free flow of commerce among nations,” he said. “But we will insist that all nations abide by the rules of the road, and resolve their territorial disputes peacefully, consistent with international law. That’s how the Asia-Pacific has grown. And that’s the only way to protect this progress going forward.”