Number of Foreign Fighters in Iraq-Syria set to Increase

Since early 2014, when the Islamic State (ISIS) shot to infamy by seizing swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, launching videos of its beheadings on social media, and announcing the establishment of a Caliphate, the group has enticed scores of foreign fighters from North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The initial anger against the Assad regime and its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, pushed several Europeans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to fight against Assad in Syria. What began as a revolution demanding Assad’s exit, soon turned into a violent Sunni movement hoping to establish a fully-functional Caliphate. The number of foreign fighters peaked as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s self-proclaimed Caliph, announced the formation of the Caliphate in June 2014. Through social media and other technological interventions, the group has attracted several disaffected youth into their fold.

Previously, the Soufan Group, a UK based think tank, estimated that 12,000 fighters from 81 countries were present in Syria and Iraq; however, the number is now estimated to be between 27,000 and 31,000 from at least 86 countries. The increase in participation of foreign fighters, which is likely to continue increasing, poses a huge problem for local counter-ISIS operations, as well as for countries having to deal with fighters returning to their home countries after stints in Syria and Iraq. As the numbers go up, the challenges facing intelligence and security agencies will increase manifold.

The reasons behind this differ from there being anger towards the lack of a solid plan to counter Assad, to poor socio-economic conditions for first generation immigrants in Europe, and the power vacuum in Libya and Tunisia. Moreover, the newly announced Islamic Military Alliance by Saudi could also see youth defecting from the military intervention to join armed rebel groups in Syria and Iraq for quicker results. Europe and the US’s reaction to a possible threat from the ISIS on their home soil and the subsequent rise of right-wing political groups, could lead to more disaffected youth traveling to West Asia to fight.

Lack of a counter-Assad plan

Since 2011, the Obama administration has been demanding that Assad step down. However, they offer no alternative. Additionally, Putin’s continuing support to Assad to counter ISIS have met with opposition from Western powers, as well as Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire between Assad’s loyalists and the ISIS. In October 2015, after a meeting with Assad, Putin announced that Russia was considering extending its support to armed rebel groups, separate from Assad’s Army, determined to defeat the ISIS. Putin’s move to bolster the Syrian Army has, contrary to Russia’s intentions, helped the Islamic State recruit more fighters.

Moreover, in October, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that the ISIS was negotiating with the Al-Nusra Front, also known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, to join forces to fight against the Syrian Army. Until late 2012, the US was extending support to the Front by providing it with arms and ammunition and financial support after the group announced that it was against the Assad regime as well as ISIS. However, in November 2012, after a significant section of the group lost their arms to the ISIS and defected to the group, the US designated the Front as an international terrorist organisation. Since then, there have been several reports of US-trained rebels who left for Syria from Turkey and joined the Al-Nusra Front instead of fighting the terrorists.

The failure of the global community to intervene and allow Iraqis and Syrians to die in the hands of Assad and his supporters, ignited anger used to galvanise more recruits. Moreover, the lack of a decision and an alternative, five years into the war against Assad, has given people more reason to join an armed rebellion that seems closer to establishing a concrete alternative than what the Western powers seem to have in mind.

Disenfranchised youth

For teenagers growing up in a post 9/11 world, the war in Syria and Iraq has played directly into the hands of their confused identities. Several first generation immigrants to Europe and North America found it harder to assimilate into the culture given the overt discrimination after September 2001. People heard stories or were subjected to racial profiling, were hassled or detained at immigration counters at airports, were called ‘terrorists’, or even stared at in public spaces. A recent study found that the median age for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims was 23. This large section of disaffected youth was easy for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq to tap into.

A report in New York Times on April 4, 2015, highlighted the journey of eight young boys from Fredrikstad, Norway, to Syria. The eight boys followed the footsteps of a local football legend and made their way to Syria. The boys, none of whom showed any signs of piousness, shared a common feeling of disenchantment with society and remained unemployed. The boys thought that a violent extremist organisation could fill that void in their lives and give them purpose and direction.

Similarly, reports tracing foreign fighters have found their motivations to be more personal than political or ideological. Some of the recruits had expressed the desire to feel a sense of belonging; some for adventure, and for some, to forge bonds with people with a more similar culture to theirs than that of their host country.

Rise in Libyan and Tunisian fighters

Source: The Soufan Group, Foreign Fighters, December 2015

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in late 2010- early 2011, Tunisia and Libya have been home to a number of loosely connected militias. The power vacuum in the two countries has allowed terrorist and militant groups to proliferate. The Islamic State controls the coastal city of Sirte and its surrounding areas while maintaining a significant presence in Benghazi. The group has been looking to control oil fields, truck routes, pipelines and other oil infrastructure in Libya after it lost ground in Syria and Iraq due to aerial bombings.

Bizerte, Tunis and Ben Gardane in Tunisia and Derna in Libya, have had a history of exporting fighters since the Cold War period. The southern Tunisian town of Ben Gardane has been a smuggling hub and has raised generations that have defied the government. Tapping into the lawlessness of the region, the ISIS has gained ground and capable recruits from the region.

As the ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq as air-strikes against the group increase, several foreign fighters, especially from Belgium, have found shelter in Libya. The Moroccan-origin Muslim immigrants to Belgium who found their way to the ISIS, have found it easier to blend in with Libyans due to a cultural similarity shared by Morocco and Libya. These European immigrants, through fear or resemblance have managed to recruit more Libyans to fight for ISIS. The ISIS has also conducted several attacks in Tunisia this year, including one on a Tunisian beach resort aimed at targeting foreign tourists and a suicide attack in November on a bus full of Tunisian Presidential Guards. In the five years since the Arab Spring, the country has successfully managed to change its constitution, hold elections, achieve some stability and establish a government led by the secular Nidaa Tounes party. However, these very accomplishments have made it a target for the ISIS. The government has reacted to the threat by imposing curfews and bestowing the security forces with more powers. This has effectively led to an increase in disenfranchisement of the Islamist groups. With at least 6000–7000 fighters believed to have joined the ISIS from Tunisia alone, the number could very easily increase in the light of these security measures and the political crisis within the ruling coalition.

Saudi’s Islamic Military Coalition

On December 14, at a press conference Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 34-member Islamic Military Coalition to counter terrorism. The coalition — including a number of Sunni countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria, Turkey, Togo and Sudan — would share intelligence, provide logistical and military support to members as and when required.

The member countries have, on several occasions, expressed their desire to see Assad ousted. Despite the alliance’s ambiguity on methods it would use to counter the ISIS, the alliance has a similar view as the terrorist group — that Assad must go.

In case of an on-the-ground intervention, such similar ideologies could lure young fighters who have seen injustice being meted out to fellow Sunnis under the Assad regime, to join the ISIS in toppling the Syrian leadership. Saudi Arabia has already seen at least 2500 citizens leave to fight in Syria and Iraq, while Turkey has recorded between 2000–2200 citizens fighting in the region against Assad. Such a military intervention may see more youth defecting to extremist organisations in Syria and Iraq as they hope to see change occur sooner with an alternative at sight in the form of a Caliphate.

Rise in right wing rhetoric in Europe and North America

The rise of economic and cultural insecurities in Europe, have allowed for conservative voices to make a more public appearance. Countries like France, Holland and Belgium, as well as cities in Spain and Italy banned the veil while Switzerland and Sweden banned minarets. The neo-Nazi party in Sweden, The Sweden Democrats, and France’s far-right party, National Front, became the third largest party in their respective Parliaments after elections last year and now enjoy 25 percent support. The parties have been vocal on their campaign against immigrants.

The Danish People’s Party gained huge ground after a shooting in Copenhagen that killed two people and injured five others. After coming to power, it slashed the benefits of migrants to half and posted advertisement in Lebanese papers threatening immigrants against entering Denmark.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made several calls for Christian Europe to defend its borders against those who have a “radically different culture”.

This increasing discrimination and paranoia against the minority communities have led to more citizens leaving their host countries and traveling to fight in extremist organisations. Counter terrorism methods, including increasing powers given to security agencies, and raids, have failed to curtail the numbers of citizens leaving the country to fight or marry a fighter in Syria or Iraq. As counter terrorism measures tighten and pro-right policies are implemented, the numbers can be expected to rise.

Is there a solution?

The lack of jobs, poor governance, discrimination, poverty, lack of good quality basic education and a serious identity crisis have pushed youth — both Muslim and non-Muslim — to find purpose as a fighter in Syria or Iraq. As the number of returnees remains at a constant 20–30%, governments across the globe are battling policy changes, refugee crisis and the lack of capabilities to deal with possible terrorist attacks on their soil.

However, if governments were genuinely interested in getting to the root of the problem and capping the number of their citizens leaving to become fighters, they would be investing to understand the motivations of those who join violent extremist organisations and those who leave them. Tapping into the resource of fighters who may have returned to their home countries may be of utmost urgency as governments struggle to understand the incentives for the returnees and anticipate attacks.

Immediate policy changes, heightened security measures and increases checks for refugees coming in, are temporary measures and could motivate more citizens to leave to join the war. Governments need to make it harder for enemy propaganda to succeed. In order to do so, governments would need to make investments in long term plans like settling refugees, spending on education and social support as well as improving cultural understanding and assimilation. As a society, our reaction needs to stop being reactionary and needs to start being precautionary.

A version of this article was previously published on

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