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Tracking Americans in Syria is a tough task

Posted at 8:17 AM, Sep 02, 2014

We've heard a lot of conflicting numbers regarding the number of Americans believed to be fighting alongside ISIS.​

REP. MIKE ROGERS TO FOX NEWS: "It's in the hundreds that we believe have at least [at] one time traveled and participated and trained with them."

In July, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered a much lower estimate. "Dozens" of Americans, he said, were fighting in Syria. 

It's tough to say who's right. That's because it's nearly impossible for the U.S. to accurately determine how many Americans have joined up with ISIS. 

First, you have to distinguish between the number of Americans who have gone to fight with Syria's U.S.-backed moderate rebels and those fighting with ISIS. That job falls to the FBI. 

Another challenge: As The Daily Beast notes, ISIS recruits don't always fit the typical profile — that is, antisocial young men in their early 20s and 30s who have had previous run-ins with the law.

While that did appear to be the case for self-styled American jihadists Douglas McCain and Troy Kastigar, the same couldn't be said for this 33-year-old Detroit woman U.S. officials say recently died fighting in Syria.

Foreign Policy makes an interesting point. Even if these Americans aren't jihadists when they arrive in Syria, there's a good chance they'll be radicalized sometime after getting there. "At this rate, the foreign fighter flow into Syria looks set to extend the life of the jihadi movement by a generation."

The fear, of course, is those American passport holders could sneak back into the U.S. undetected and carry out an attack on the homeland using what they learned from ISIS.

Of course, Americans aren't the only ones traveling to Syria. As The Economist illustrates with this graph, although the majority of foreign fighters in Syria are from Arab states, a sizable number are believed to have come from Western European nations.

To learn more, watch this Newsy video.