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20,000 foreign fighters head to Syria: US

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Jordanians shout slogans against jihadists during a demonstration on February 6, 2015 in the capital Amman in solidarity with the Jordanian pilot murdered by the Islamic State (IS) group last month/AFP

Jordanians shout slogans against jihadists during a demonstration on February 6, 2015 in the capital Amman in solidarity with the Jordanian pilot murdered by the Islamic State (IS) group last month/AFP

WASHINGTON, Feb 11- Foreign fighters are flocking to Syria at an “unprecedented” rate, with more than 20,000 volunteers from around the world joining the Islamic State or other extremist groups, US intelligence officials said.

The foreign fighters have traveled to Syria from more than 90 countries, including at least 3,400 from Western states and more than 150 Americans, according to the latest estimate from the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC).

A majority of the foreign volunteers who arrived recently have joined forces with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, it said.

The estimate of the total number of foreign fighters flocking to Syria was up from a previous estimate in January of roughly 19,000, according to NCTC.

No precise numbers are available “but the trend lines are clear and concerning,” Nicholas Rasmussen, NCTC director, said in prepared remarks for a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

“The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years,” he said.

The volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and “do not fit any one stereotype,” Rasmussen said.

“The battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West,” he said.

Western governments have voiced increasing alarm over the flow of foreign volunteers heading to the Syrian conflict, particularly in the aftermath of jihadist attacks in Paris that left 17 dead.

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In the months long battle for the Syrian town of Kobane near the Turkish border, large numbers of foreign fighters were among the jihadists killed, according to US officials.

Kurdish forces, backed up by US led air strikes, eventually succeeded in fending off an attempt by the IS group to seize Kobane.

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