WASHINGTON — The head of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) called the volume of fighters flowing into Iraq and Syria from approximately 90 nations to fight with the Islamic State group "staggering."
At an annual Special Operations conference in Washington DC on Tuesday, Jan. 27 Army Gen. Joseph Votel said the US government estimates that about 19,000 foreign fighters have crossed the borders into the two countries, and that American intelligence organizations are seeing the expansion of the Islamic StateIS into North Africa.
"We need to be prepared to deal with them where they are," he said, and US special forces are a big part of that.
There are currently several hundred US Army special operators working out of three locations in Iraq, training and advising Iraqi security forces, but the Pentagon has consistently said that they are not taking part in any combat.
Canadian special forces working with the Kurds in the north have been engaged in three firefights with Islamic StateIS members, and the Ottawa government has confirmed that their operators have left their compounds to laser-designate targets on the ground for coalition aircraft to hit.
But Votel identified areas of concern outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said "a resurgent Russia" is one of the big national security issues of our time, saying that the Moscow regime "is now employing coercive techniques against its neighbors using [special operations] forces, other clandestine capabilities, information operations, other cyber operations and groupings of ethnic proxies and surrogates to drive wedges into our key allies in East Europe."
And the mingling of criminal gangs and insurgencies around the globe remains a vexing problem.
SOCOM is tracking a "growing nexus" between terrorist groups and criminal gangs, he said. "The ability of criminal organizations to move money, people and weapons is very attractive to violent extremists. We don't fully understand or appreciate completely how these different networks interact wittingly or unwittingly, but the more they cooperate, the greater the threat."
The Islamic StateIS makes millions of dollars a month smuggling oil out of Syria and Iraq to third countries, and there have consistently been reports of Islamists in western Africa running drugs up through Europe.
But no one segment of the US national security apparatus is working these issues alone. Of particular interest were Votel's comments about the relationship between special operators and "general purpose forces." He called the Army's Regionally Aligned Brigade initiative "a great opportunity to share the burden and bring our compleimentary capabilities to bear" on problems around the globe.
After 13thirteen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, American special operators and general purpose forces have forged an unprecedented relationship that leaders in both communities are eager to nurture.
Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford recently made interoperability between his Marines and the special ops community a key part of his guidance to the force released on Jan. 23, and Votel said that in the Horn of Africa — where SOF has long been active — "we are beginning to get to a point where we can take our SOF forces out of there" and let general purpose forces do the work of partnering with local forces.
But there's still much work to be done. The services and the commandos are still working to iron out traditional stovepipes, and "must eliminate the institutional friction that exists between us and our conventional force, international, interagency and intelligence community partners" he said.
Most significantly, he said thinks that communications between the services and with allies remains is a huge hurdle. to overcome in the coming years.
"Like the threat networks we face, our unity of effort is directly correlated to our connectedness — to information, to our partners and to the chain of command," he said.