Credit: Bulent Kilic
Credit: Bulent Kilic
© Photo: Bulent Kilic

It is estimated that a number between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters have been flocking to Iraq and Syria since the breakout of the war in 2011.

An updated assessment of the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq shows that there is a significant increase in the number of foreign fighters travelling to Syria. Data provided by the Soufan Group in 2014 estimated that the identifiable number of foreign fighters is approximately 12,000 from 81 countries. It was also believed that the number of foreign Jihadists coming form Western countries does not exceed 3000: “Around 2,500 are from Western countries, including most members of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand”, according to Soufan’s initial report on Foreign Fighters in Syria. Now the number exceeds 27,000 foreign fighters from at least 86 countries.

How Many Foreign Fighters Syria Has By Hakim Khatib
Illustration by the author (based on TSG report 2015) – © Hakim Khatib/MPC Journal

While the accurate numbers of foreign fighters in Syria are difficult to verify, and so are the numbers of them coming back to their home countries, the CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said: “This new total reflects an increase in numbers because of stronger recruitment since June [2014] following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence”.

The Soufan Group said that “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”. This shows that the impact of these increased efforts to contain the flow of foreign recruits to extremist groups in Syria is limited.

While some regions in the world witnessed a significant increase in the number of foreign fighters, some other regions witnessed a relative stagnation.

For instance, unlike North America, the number in Western Europe has more than doubled since June 2014. However, according to Soufan Group data the number of foreign fighters has increased in all regions in the world:

  • In Western Europe from approximately 2,000 in 2014 to 5000 in 2015;
  • in former Soviet republics from approximately 1,000 in 2014 to almost 5000 in 2015;
  • in The Maghreb from approximately 5,000 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2015;
  • in North America from a couple of hundreds in 2014 to almost 1,000 in 2015;
  • in the Middle East from approximately 3000 in 2014 to 8,500 in 2015;
  • in Southeast Asia from nearly 100 in 2014 to almost 1,000 in 2015 and in the Balkans from a couple of hundred to over 1,000 in 2015.
How Many Foreign Fighters in Syria? - How Many Foreign Fighters Syria Has By Hakim Khatib Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal
Illustration by the author (based on TSG report 2015) – © Hakim Khatib/MPC Journal

While Tunisians (6,000), Saudis (2,500), and Jordanians (2,000) in the Middle East and the Maghreb continue to outnumber other national contingents, Russians (2,400) and Turks (2,100) persist to remain on the top of the list.

How Many Foreign Fighters Syria Has By Hakim Khatib Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal
Illustration by the author (based on TSG report 2015) – © Hakim Khatib/MPC Journal

According to the same report, the average rate of returnees to Western countries is now at around 20-30%. This poses new security challenges. But what also the report concludes is that “the motivation for people to join violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq remains more personal than political”.

The Syrian civil war, according to the evaluation of the report, “will not end soon”, and although ISIS is under more pressure than it was in June 2014, “it is likely to survive in some form for a considerable time to come”.

While the report focuses solely on foreign fighters joining extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, there are also thousands of foreign fighters joining the Assad regime coming from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Should future investigations estimate approximate numbers of foreign fighters joining all conflicting parties in Syria and Iraq, the numbers could skyrocket to not only outnumber the foreign fighters in the Afghan war but also to double them.

By Hakim Charles

Hakim Charles studied political science of the Middle East, European Studies, journalism and linguistics. He has been lecturing at different German universities since 2011 on issues related to ideology and the interplay of power thereof in socio-political life, and religion and its relationship to contemporary politics in the regions of West Asia and North Africa, especially Egypt and Syria. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC Journal) since 2014 and has published over 100 articles in different languages, academic and otherwise, in a wide spectrum of on-line and printed newspapers, journals and think tanks. His current research focuses on Islam-inspired political ideologies such as Islamist extremism and Salafism, radicalisation, de-radicalisation processes in Germany as well as peace and conflict in the Middle East.

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