Islamic State may have gained 1,000 recruits from Asia: U.S. commander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Around 1,000 recruits from a vast region stretching from India to the Pacific may have joined Islamic State to fight in Syria or Iraq, a senior U.S. military commander said on Thursday.

“That number could get larger as we go forward,” Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, who heads the U.S. Armed Forces’ Pacific Command, told reporters at the Pentagon.

However, Locklear did not specify which of the 36 countries in the Pacific Command - some of which have their own Islamist movements - have been recruiting grounds for the Sunni fundamentalist militant group.

In addition to India, the Hawaii-based Pacific Command’s area of responsibility includes Australia, China and other Pacific Ocean states. The command does not cover Pakistan.

Locklear told reporters that current estimates put at 1,000 the number of “potential aspiring fighters” that have moved from the region encompassed by the Hawaii-based Pacific Command. He did not specify a time period.

His comments came as a threat by Philippine militants to kill a German hostage in a show of solidarity with Islamic State has stoked fresh concerns that the Middle East group’s brand of radicalism is winning recruits in Asia and posing a growing security risk in the region.

In the region, thousands have sworn oaths of loyalty to Islamic State as local militant groups capitalize on a brand that has been fueled by violent online videos and calls to action through social media, security analysts say.

Locklear said Islamic State recruitment was “high on the list” as officials look to future security concerns in Asia. He said most of the aspiring fighters had been recruited via social media and warned that officials were looking at ways to guard against blowback from potential attacks as foreign fighters return to their home countries.

“We are working with all of our partners and allies to see how we harden (security in) our own countries and the region and the world against a threat like (the Islamic State),” he said.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council demanded that all countries make it a serious criminal offense for their citizens to travel abroad to fight with militant groups, or to recruit and fund others to do so.

On the same day, the United States designated two dozen individuals and groups as foreign terrorists or terrorist facilitators, enabling it to freeze assets and block financial transactions as it stepped up its offensive against Islamist militants in Syria, including Islamic State.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jonathan Oatis