Skip to content

It’s Time to Drain the Swamp in Syria | Commentary

Hurd shakes hands with Salim al-Janouri, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament (Photo courtesy Hurd's office).
Hurd shakes hands with Salim al-Janouri, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament (Photo courtesy Hurd's office).

By Rep. Will Hurd  For almost a decade, I chased al-Qaida as an undercover case officer for the CIA. I learned how they operated and watched them communicate a message of hatred for our nation and for freedom.  

Back then, their methods for recruitment and spreading propaganda were unsophisticated. They wrote letters and spent the overnight hours dropping them off on doorsteps. We called them “night letters.” Time, distance and slow communications limited their ability to recruit.  

We face a different enemy today. Their violent missives are not hatched in caves and delivered by couriers. They solicit recruits on YouTube. They launch terror with a tweet.  

The Islamic State terror group’s digital tentacles have crept across the Western world with alarming speed — reaching young people of all races, genders and income levels.  

This online outreach has fueled twin threats to the homeland.  

First, it is driving an uptick in foreign fighters. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is enlisting new foot soldiers online and is urging them to travel to fight in Syria and Iraq, where many will receive combat training and develop extremist connections — tools that will make them deadly potential terrorists should they return to America. We already saw this last month in Ohio, where an American “returnee” from Syria plotted to attack U.S. military bases.  

Second, ISIS’ social media prowess is allowing it to radicalize Americans at home and activate them to conduct attacks. The attack in Garland, Texas, is a chilling example of how easily extremists have been able to do so.  

The individuals who make up ISIS are barbarians. They have little regard for liberty and even less for innocent life. Most Americans of any faith can’t fathom choosing to leave home to fight for people like this, but that’s exactly what’s happening.  

I recently traveled with several other members of Congress to the Middle East and Europe to examine foreign fighter “pathways” into Iraq and Syria and to assess how we can shut down the terror pipeline that is carrying Westerners to and from the battlefield.  

Our delegation sought to determine how we can stop would-be terrorists from joining the fight in the first place, and how we can keep foreign fighters from returning home to conduct attacks.  

One fact was clear: Our allies can and must do more. In particular, serious security gaps in Europe have allowed extremists to travel back and forth between the West and Syria without being detected. A lack of intelligence information-sharing in many countries and inadequate screening of travelers against terrorist watchlists has created a permissive environment in Europe for terrorist travel.  

But there is more we can do as well. The Obama administration must ramp up human intelligence collection in Syria. During the early days of al-Qaida, a westerner would be killed before he or she got close to the group’s core leadership. Now, ISIS is actively recruiting westerners, providing us with opportunities to infiltrate their ranks. This will require taking risks, but we can’t be risk-averse in the face of a surging terror threat. The recent strike by American special forces in Syria in which ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf was killed is a great example of how valuable this intelligence is and what can happen when it’s acted upon.  

We also must speed up our efforts to train and equip regional partners to eliminate ISIS where they live. The Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdish regional government, has proven capable of going toe-to-to with ISIS in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, while Sunni militia leaders have demonstrated a desire and willingness to engage ISIS in their areas of control. But these groups cannot do it alone, and that is where U.S. support is crucial for rolling back — not just containing — ISIS.  

Make no mistake: there have been some successes already. U.S.-trained Iraqi forces have recaptured territory gained by ISIS, and they have killed somewhere in the range of 11,000 to 14,000 ISIS members in Iraq alone, many of which were foreign fighters. ISIS propaganda tries to appeal to a young person’s sense of adventure, but the reality is that if you fight alongside ISIS, you are more likely get a bomb dropped on your head or a bullet in your chest.  

We’ve already killed a lot of our ISIS enemies, and we will continue to kill more, but if we’re going to stop foreign fighter travel and ultimately ISIS, we have to stop swatting at flies. It’s time to drain the swamp.  

Syria is complicated. Ethnic, tribal and ideological divisions have compounded to create a country that is more like five countries — one controlled by ISIS, one controlled by President Bashar Assad, one controlled by the al-Qaida affiliate Nusra front, one controlled by the Syrian Kurds and one controlled by a number of warring rebel parties.  

We won’t see a democracy develop in Syria anytime soon. There is no Syrian Thomas Jefferson. But one thing is clear — ISIS grew out of the chaos in Syria and until some semblance of stability is obtained, ISIS will continue to morph, mature and metastasize.  

We are faced with various serious threats to our tranquility at home. As a country, we have always risen to the challenge of our times. Our foes like ISIS don’t want us to be able to enjoy life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness — it goes against everything they believe. The best way to ensure our ability to enjoy these inalienable rights is to make sure they flourish where our enemies live.  

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, spent almost a decade in the CIA as an undercover case officer, including time in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security and chairs the IT Subcommittee for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. 

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Recent Stories

Key results from Georgia runoff, Virginia and Oklahoma primaries

CBO: Deficits and inflation higher, but so is economic growth

Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass ban on ‘bump stocks’

Senate report piles on new allegations of Boeing safety failures

Matt Gaetz goes on offensive as House Ethics offers update on probe

Senate spectrum bill markup scrapped over partisan differences