The number of foreign fighters in Syria surged in 2015

The Soufan Group reports: In June 2014, The Soufan Group (TSG) released a report on Foreign Fighters in Syria. Now, 18 months later, despite sustained international effort to contain the so-called Islamic State and stem the flow of militants traveling to Syria, the number of foreign fighters has more than doubled. In an updated report released today, it becomes clear that neither the challenge of preventing people from traveling to Syria to join extremist groups nor the threat of unknown numbers returning to commit Paris-style attacks has been adequately countered or addressed.

The original report listed an estimated 12,000 people from 83 countries; today’s update estimates that between 27,000 and 31,000 people from at least 86 countries have traveled to Syria. Some of the increase likely stems from better disclosure and accounting by governments, but the increase is also testament to the enduring pull of the Islamic State’s narrative spread by social media across the globe. It also shows that as long as would-be foreign fighters have a physical destination to travel to, they will do so. As long as the group holds onto its self-proclaimed caliphate, people will try to join it.

The updated report also shows that while the phenomenon of Syrian-bound foreign fighters is indeed global, there are hotbeds of terror that send citizens to Raqqa and beyond in disproportionate numbers. Some are long-time generators of foreign fighters: Derna, Libya; Ben Gardane and Bizerte, Tunisia; and the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia. Other places are more recent additions to the list of communities losing their youth to terror: the Molenbeek district of Brussels, Belgium; and the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad in Norway.

These hotbeds show the power of peer-to-peer recruitment. 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 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; clusters of friends and neighbors persuade each other to travel separately or together to join the Islamic State.

The report concludes that the issue of foreign fighters is both a near-term threat and a long-term challenge. The Syrian civil war will not end soon, and although the Islamic State is under more pressure than it was in June 2014 when TSG produced its original report, it is likely to survive in some form for a considerable time to come. It will attract more recruits from abroad, but they may differ from the earlier wave of hopefuls who were attracted by the prospect of a brand new state that would provide them what they could not find at home. As the Islamic State changes its focus from consolidating control of territory to attacking its foreign enemies in their homelands, or their interests elsewhere, the profile of its foreign recruits will also change. All the while, the group will continue to inspire attacks by those who do not wish to travel, but rather fight for the group in their country of residence.

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