The Department of Defense estimated on Wednesday that the Islamic State currently has 20,000 to 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, which means the jihadist group that controls swaths of land in both countries has suffered no appreciable net loss of fighters since President Obama first ordered U.S. airstrikes in August 2014.
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of America’s military intervention against ISIS, gave the official figures during a press conference at the Pentagon.
A reporter asked Warren for the military’s best estimate “on the size of the ISIS fighting force across Iraq and Syria.”
“We estimate there’s between 20,000 and 30,000 members of [ISIS] operating inside both Iraq and Syria,” Warren said in response.
The CIA assessed in September 2014, about a month after the U.S. began conducting airstrikes against ISIS, that the group had between 20,000 and 31,500 members across Iraq and Syria, indicating American military efforts have done little to degrade its manpower.
The Obama administration has touted how the U.S.-led coalition has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, with one official saying last fall that 20,000 members were killed in just over a year of operations. The president himself said last month that the U.S. is hammering the jihadists “harder than ever” and has fervently defended his strategy to counter the Islamic State amid growing bipartisan calls for him to use more military force and take a tougher posture toward the conflict.
A primary reason ISIS has retained its numbers despite an international effort to defeat it is the foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the jihadist group and spread its self-declared caliphate. For each ISIS member killed, there is another recruit arriving to replace them.
One report says that there are about 30,000 foreign fighters who have traveled to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other Salafist groups. Many of these individuals are from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, but a large number are from Western countries, including the United States. One fear is that these fighters have passports and can return to their home countries to launch attacks similar to the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, when ISIS personnel killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.
Beyond the U.S. government’s official numbers, there are several other estimates of the group’s strength, most of which place the number higher than 30,000. One analyst has even said ISIS has 200,000 members, although other analysts have said that estimate is too high.
These figures do not account for the Islamic State’s spread to countries in the Middle East other than Iraq and Syria, as well as beyond the region to Africa and Central Asia. Local jihadist groups from Nigeria to Afghanistan and Pakistan have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which helps promote the jihadist group’s brand and bring in more recruits. The group’s influence has reached to places as far as Bangladesh and the Philippines and even the United States, as seen with the recent shooting in San Bernardino, California.
In terms of land, ISIS has reportedly lost 30 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria over the course of 2015, Warren said.
President Obama had declared in November that the Islamic State was contained in a statement the day before the Paris terror attacks and said his policies are working but will take time.
Both Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford testified to Congress last month that the group has not been contained.
Dunford told lawmakers, “Tactically, in areas they have been [contained]. Strategically, they have spread since 2010.”