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FOREIGN FIGHTERS An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq FOREIGN FIGHTERS An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters…
FOREIGN FIGHTERS An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq FOREIGN FIGHTERS An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq THE SOUFAN GROUP DECEMBER 2015 JUNE 2014 Contents Key Findings 4 Introduction 5 The Numbers 6 Hotbeds of Recruitment 10 The Numbers by Region 12 Western Europe 12 Russia and the Former Soviet Republics 14 The Maghreb and North Africa 15 The Horn of Africa 17 The Balkans 17 Southeast Asia 18 The Americas 19 Conclusion 20 Contributors 22 Sources 23 About The Soufan Group 25 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Key Findings ã In June 2014, The Soufan Group released its initial Foreign Fighters in Syria report, which identified approximately 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 countries.1 ã Nearly eighteen months later, despite sustained international effort to contain the Islamic State and stem the flow of militants traveling to Syria, the number of foreign fighters has more than doubled. ã Based on its own investigation, The Soufan Group has calculated that between 27,000 and 31,000 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups from at least 86 countries.
ã The increase is evidence that efforts to contain the flow of foreign recruits to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have had limited impact.
ã The increase in foreign fighters is not uniform throughout the world; certain regions and countries have seen more significant rises than others.
ã The number of foreign fighters from Western Europe has more than doubled since June 2014, while it has remained relatively flat in North America.
ã Foreign fighters from Russia and Central Asia have shown a significant rise; some estimates suggest a near 300% increase in known fighters since June 2014. ã Recruitment within the United States has been mostly reliant on social media, particularly in the initial phases of the process. ã In the countries with the largest flows, recruitment to the Islamic State has become more focused and localized, with fewer people just leaving on their own; family and friends are playing a greater role. ã The average rate of returnees to Western countries is now at around 20-30%, presenting a significant challenge to security and law enforcement agencies that must assess the threat they pose. 1 The original paper, Foreign Fighters in Syria, was published in June 2014 ( foreign-fighters-in-syria/). 4 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Introduction This paper is intended to update the numbers of foreign fighters traveling to join the so-called Islamic State and other violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria provided by The Soufan Group (TSG) in June 2014. Since then, other reports have emerged, including in September 2015 when United States intelligence estimates put the number of foreign fighters in Syria at upwards of 30,000 from over 100 countries. TSG research, which includes information provided directly by officials, largely confirms these figures. The numbers in this report have been compiled from official government estimates wherever possible, but also derive from United Nations reports, studies by research bodies, academic sources, and from other sources quoting government officials. Inevitably, whatever their source, the numbers quoted are subject to an inherent level of uncertainty. Many governments do not release official estimates of the number of their citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq, and those that do, whether formally or informally, do not reveal their methodology and may struggle to achieve accuracy. Also, for some, the number may reflect all those who have gone, while others may subtract the number of returnees and/or those who have died. Some may not include women and children, while others do. It is rare that governments provide a detailed breakdown of their numbers and in all cases it is likely that more have gone than the relevant government is aware of or prepared to admit. 5 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq The Numbers The rise of extremist groups in the anarchy of the Syrian civil war and the postinvasion chaos of Iraq remains essentially a local and regional phenomenon, with the majority of recruits coming from Arab states. Tunisians, Saudis, and Jordanians continue to outnumber other national contingents, although a reverse flow to North Africa may alter the balance within the Arab group. Neighboring Turkey is also a significant provider of manpower, though perhaps inevitably, Turkish fighters appear to return home in greater numbers than those from elsewhere. The Turkish authorities had imprisoned 500 citizens for joining the Islamic State by November 2015, and another 100 for joining Jabhat al-Nusra.2 While an absence of reliable figures makes it difficult to estimate any increase in the flow of Arabs to Iraq and Syria, the numbers traveling from Western Europe and Russia seem to have continued to climb, despite the various attempts by individual countries and the international community to stem the flow. The appeal of the Islamic State appears to be as strong as before, despite—or in some cases because of—the multiplying examples of its horrific violence and increasing totalitarianism. “Tunisians, Saudis, and Jordanians continue to outnumber other national contingents, although a reverse flow to North Africa may alter the balance within the Arab group” It is too early to judge how Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the regime, and the growing engagement of certain European countries in the aerial bombardment of the Islamic State, may affect the flow of recruits to Syria. However, even after a year of increasing intensity, the campaign launched against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra by the United States has made little difference to the number of recruits from North America, which has remained relatively flat. This suggests that the motivation for people to join violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq remains more personal than political. Although much of the propaganda put out by the Islamic State focuses on the civilian casualties arising from the military campaign waged against it, the majority of its video production appeals to those who seek a new beginning rather than revenge for past acts. A search for belonging, purpose, adventure, and friendship, appear to remain the main reasons for people to join the Islamic State, just as they remain the least addressed issues in the international fight against terrorism. 2 Official briefing in Ankara, November 2015. 6 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Although anecdotal evidence suggests that it has become harder for individuals to leave territory controlled by the Islamic State, as time has passed, the number of individuals returning to their home countries from the fighting in Syria and Iraq has increased. Their motivation for leaving may vary as much as their motivation for joining; some will have had enough of the violence, some may have become disillusioned with the Islamic State and its leadership, and others may have simply decided to pursue their goals elsewhere. Little is known about them, and for the time being, it is too early to say what this means in terms of the threat to national security. “The motivation for people to join violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq remains more personal than political” So far as can be ascertained from their own accounts, the great majority of recruits to the Islamic State continue to go to Syria with the intention of acting there rather than training to become domestic terrorists. But the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 may reflect a growing trend of overseas terrorism being planned and organized from the Islamic State. The understanding of motivation, both of those who join and of those who leave, remains of key importance—not just in helping to ensure the deployment of scarce resources to where they are most needed, but also in identifying returnees who can undermine the appeal of the Islamic State by speaking with credibility and authority about its true nature. Countries Official Count Afghanistan Last Update Non-Official Jan, 2015 50 Albania 90 May, 2015 100-200 Algeria 170 May, 2015 200-250 2012 23 Argentina TSG 2014 Figures Returnees c. 200 Australia 120 Oct, 2015 255 Austria 300 Oct, 2015 233 70 Azerbaijan 104+ May, 2014 216 49 Belgium 470 Oct, 2015 470 7 c. 250 c. 250 118 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Countries Official Count Last Update Non-Official Bosnia 330 Oct, 2015 217 Brazil 3 Jul, 2015 Cambodia 1 Jun, 2015 Canada 130 Oct, 2015 China 300 Nov, 2014 Denmark 125 Oct, 2015 100-150 Egypt 600+ Jan, 2015 1000 Finland 70 Aug, 2015 70-100 France 1700 May, 2015 Georgia TSG 2014 Figures 51 30 Jul, 2015 100 62 c. 30 25+ c. 700 c. 250 270 200+ 50 Germany 760 Nov, 2015 India 23 Nov, 2015 40-50 Indonesia 700 Jul, 2015 c. 500 30-60 Ireland 30 Nov, 2015 30 25-30 Israel 40-50 Jan, 2015 Italy 87 Nov, 2015 Japan Mar, 2015 9 2500 2000+ Sep, 2015 Kazakhstan 300 Jan, 2015 Kosovo 232 Oct, 2015 300 Kuwait Jan, 2015 70 Kyrgyzstan Nov, 2015 500 900 Libya Sep, 2015 Jan, 2015 600 100 Macedonia 146 Aug, 2015 Madagascar 3+ Jun, 2015 1 162 10 Jordan Lebanon Returnees 8 100-120 10+ Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Countries Official Count Last Update Malaysia 100 Nov, 2015 Maldives 200 May, 2015 Moldova 1+ Jan, 2015 Montenegro Non-Official TSG 2014 Figures 5+ 20-100 Sep, 2014 30 Morocco 1200 Oct, 2015 1500 c. 1500 Netherlands 220 Oct, 2015 210 120 New Zealand 5 to 10 Mar, 2015 6 Norway 81 Oct, 2015 60 Pakistan 70 Aug, 2015 330 Philippines 100 Aug, 2014 Portugal 2015 12 Qatar Dec, 2015 c. 10 1+ Mar, 2015 Russia 2400 Sep, 2015 c. 800 Saudi Arabia 2500 Oct, 2015 c. 2500 Jul, 2015 Singapore 2 Jul, 2015 South Africa 1+ Jun, 2015 Somalia 50-70 1 Jan, 2015 70 Spain 133 Oct, 2015 250 Sudan 70 Sep, 2015 100 Sweden 300 Oct, 2015 300 Switzerland 57 Oct, 2015 Tajikistan 386 May, 2015 Trinidad Tunisia 6000 40 40-50 Romania Serbia Returnees 2014 50 Oct, 2015 7000 9 51 2 c. 30 115 c. 10 3 c. 3000 625+ Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Countries Official Count Last Update Turkey 2000-2200 Nov, 2015 Non-Official Turkmenistan Jan, 2015 360 UAE Jan, 2015 15 UK 760 Nov, 2015 USA 150 Oct, 2015 250+ Jan, 2015 500 Uzbekistan TSG 2014 Figures Returnees c. 400 600+ c. 400 350 70+ 40 (TSG has noted no updated numbers for the following countries featured in its 2014 report: Armenia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Chad, Chile, Côte d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Eritrea, Estonia, Hungary, Iran, Luxembourg, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Poland, Senegal, Ukraine, and Yemen) Hotbeds of Recruitment The foreign fighter phenomenon in Iraq and Syria is truly global, with at least 86 countries seeing at least one of their citizens or residents travel to Syria to fight for extremist groups there, primarily for the Islamic State. But the flow is neither uniform by region nor by country, regardless of the pool of residents who may be susceptible to the Islamic State’s appeal. Hotbeds of recruitment have emerged scattered within the global influx. Some are small, like the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad in Norway; others are well-established incubators and radiators of extremist behavior, such as Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia; Derna in Libya; the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia; and the Molenbeek district of Brussels. The existence of these hotbeds results from the personal nature of recruitment. Joining the Islamic State is not a rational act so much as an emotional one, and the involvement of family or a close acquaintance in the radicalization process is a frequent determinant of the outcome. Where one joins, another is more likely to follow. Areas where there are close-knit groups of susceptible youth, often lacking a sense of purpose or belonging outside their own circle, have proved to generate a momentum of recruitment that spreads through personal contacts from group to group. While the power of the Islamic State’s social media outreach is undeniable, it appears more often to prepare the ground for persuasion, rather than to force the decision. There are few places on earth in which the group’s message and imagery cannot be 10 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq seen or heard, and its ubiquitous reach has led to the recruitment of individuals from Algeria to Uzbekistan. Yet, as hotbeds develop, recruitment through social media becomes less important than via direct human contact, as clusters of friends and neighbors persuade each other to travel separately or together to join the Islamic State. In the space of a year, eight young men left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, in Norway, to go to Syria.3 Lisleby is an area with a population of around 6,000, so the proportion of recruits is exceptional. If replicated across the population of the United States this would mean 413,400 Americans had joined the Islamic State. This cluster appears to have flowed from the influence of a single, charismatic individual. The district of Molenbeek in Brussels, the hometown of many members of the Islamic State cell that attacked Paris in November 2015, is another example of a concentrated area where a cluster can develop. Belgium's Interior Minister Jan Jambon said in November 2015 that the majority of Belgian foreign fighters came from Brussels, in particular Molenbeek. While Lisleby and Molenbeek are relative newcomers to the production of foreign fighters, two Tunisian towns have a long history of such violent exportation. As many as 7,000 people may have traveled from Tunisia to Syria and Iraq, a good deal of w h o m h ave c o m e from Bizerte in the north and Ben Gardane in the south, an infamous smuggling hub, with generations raised on evading and defying 3 Andrew Higgins, “A Norway Town and Its Pipeline to Jihad in Syria,” The New York Times, April 4, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2015. 11 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq government authority. In their relative isolation, comfort with cross-border travel and antagonism towards outsiders, families in Ben Gardane have proved susceptible to the call of violent extremism. Derna in Libya also has a long history of exporting violent extremists. Many of the estimated 600 people from Libya who have gone to fight for violent jihadist causes are from the Derna region. Derna was also the biggest contributor to the fighting in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, and before that it provided fighters in the 1980s for the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union, many of whom joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that mounted an insurgency against the Qadhafi regime from 1995-1998. The Numbers by Region
Western Europe As recorded in the TSG Foreign Fighters report, by June 2014, approximately 2,500 individuals from western European countries had traveled to Syria to join the civil war. By December 2015—18 months later—this number had more than doubled. Estimates indicate that more than 5,000 fighters from member states of the European Union alone have made the trip to Syria. “3,700 of the total 5,000+ European Union foreign fighter contingent come from just four countries” While all western European countries that have published figures have seen an increase in people traveling to Syria, some contribute a disproportionate percentage. Official estimates from French authorities indicate around 1,700 individuals had left France to join the fighting as of October 2015.4 Another 760 fighters from the United Kingdom and 760 from Germany had gone to Syria as of November 2015, along with 470 from Belgium as of October 2015.5 Based on these estimates, almost 3,700 of the total 5,000+ European Union foreign fighter contingent come from just four countries. The secular nature of western European countries like France and Belgium, which top the poll for the highest number of fighters per capita, coupled with a sense of 4 According to a statement by Prime Minister Valls in October 2015. 5 Briefing by Government officials, October 2015. 12 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq marginalization among immigrant communities, especially those from North Africa, appear to have played a role in the radicalization process. Against this sense of alienation, the propaganda of the Islamic State offers an attractive alternative of belonging, purpose, adventure and respect. Many, though by no means all, of the recruits to the Islamic State, particularly from Northern Europe, have a record of minor criminality and may have spent time in prison. The Islamic State offers them a new identity that is less determined by their past than by their potential contribution in the future. The cost—an acceptance of a narrow set of rules, strictly enforced—is further offset by the Islamic State’s supposed basis in religion, and the fact that its rules are uniformly applied. The age range of recruits has remained the same since the TSG report in June 2014, with most being in their 20s, but some much younger. The speed of radicalization also remains a feature, with the whole process generally taking weeks rather than months. There is, however, more evidence of communitybased recruitment in countries with the highest numbers of foreign fighters, where groups of acquaintances are drawn into a c o m m o n i d e n t i t y. T h e Molenbeek neighborhood in Brussels, where several of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris in November lived and knew each other, is an example of this.6 While social media undoubtedly plays a role in the recruitment of fighters from Western Europe, it is—perhaps—understandable that, over time, people who have already gone to Syria reach out in person to their friends and acquaintances to encourage them to do the same. Recruitment efforts both on and offline appear to have become more insistent and better organized. The influence of returnees in this process is still unknown.
6 Andrew Higgins, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura and Katrin Bennhold, “In Suspects’ Brussels Neighborhood, a History of Petty Crimes and Missed Chances,” The New York Times, November 16, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2015. 13 Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq Russia and the Former Soviet Republics While the surge of Western foreign fighters and the security implications of their potential return have received a lot of attention, less has been given to foreign fighters traveling from outside Western Europe and North America. In October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Based on these figures, the number of foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union has increased considerably since June 2014. Official estimates from the Russian Federation alone suggest that 2,400 Russians had joined the Islamic State by September 2015; compared to over 800 by June 2014. Comparatively speaking, this increase is far more substantial proportionately than that seen in Western Europe over the same time span. TSG has identified credible reports of foreign fighters in Syria from 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics. Based on the best available information, TSG calculates that there are at least 4,700 fighters from the region, in line with the lower end of the official estimate provided by Russian authorities. The majority of fighters come from the North Caucasus—Chechnya and Dagestan— with a smaller but still significant number from Azerbaijan and Georgia.7 Reliable information on the specific number of fighters from Azerbaijan and Georgia is limited, although some estimates have put the combined total from both countries at around 500.8 Similar to parts of Europe with a high number of foreign fighters, there appears to be a pattern wit
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