Number of ISIS Fighters in Iraq and Syria Drops, Increases in Libya, US Official Says

The U.S. now estimates that the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria has decreased to between 19,000 and 25,000 resulting from battlefield deaths and a reduced flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Yet, as ISIS numbers have been reduced in Iraq and Syria, they have increased in Libya to 5,000 where ISIS has seen an increased flow of foreign fighters, U.S. officials said today.

Previous U.S. estimates for Iraq and Syria in the past year have been that ISIS has remained constant at between 20,000 and 30,000, with a peak of 33,000, according to a Defense Department official.

Thousands of ISIS fighters were killed by American airstrikes in Kobani more than a year ago, and despite battlefield losses in Bayji and Ramadi, U.S. intelligence continued to assess that the numbers of ISIS fighters had remained constant, the Defense Department official said.

The new lower estimate for Iraq and Syria could be due to a combination of factors, such as coalition airstrikes, battlefield deaths, desertions, disciplinary actions, recruiting shortfalls and difficulties that foreign fighters face in traveling into Syria, the official said. It also could be that the U.S. intelligence community has a better handle on counting ISIS numbers.

The number of ISIS fighters in Libya was previously estimated at 2,000 to 3,000, the official said, speculating that there might be a correlation between the new ISIS estimates in Iraq/Syria and Libya as it’s getting harder for foreign fighters to get into Syria and that they may be diverting to Libya as a result.

The increasing ISIS presence in Libya has drawn increasing concern from American security officials.

Two weeks ago, the National Security Council discussed how the U.S. could target ISIS in Libya, though no military options were presented. Officials say those meetings looked at ways the U.S. could work with international partners against ISIS in Libya and supporting a new unity government. Future U.S. military options could result in airstrikes targeting against ISIS and possible support for militias opposed to ISIS, though no decisions were made.