The World

The Mystery of ISIS’ Foreign Fighters

The video released over the weekend showing the execution of American aid worker Peter Kassig is going to focus new attention on the role played the Westerners fighting for ISIS. In addition to the British fighter referred to in the U.K. media as “Jihadi John,” the video also features men suspected to be a British medical student from Cardiff and a French national and recent convert to Islam who traveled to Syria last year.

ISIS’s potential threat to Western countries is an important, if a little misguided, reason why the public supports military intervention in Syria and Iraq to counter the group. And concern that fighters could return from the Middle East to their countries of origin to carry out attacks has prompted governments throughout the world, including the United States, to raise the alarm about ISIS recruitment.  As President Obama has said, “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

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But is the foreign fighter threat overstated?

Estimates vary, but both U.S. intelligence services and the U.N. say that about 15,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State from 80 countries—a large portion of the group’s total manpower.

About 2,000 of those are from Western countries, including, according to one adviser to the U.S. director of national intelligence, “at least 500 from the U.K, 700 from France, 400 from Germany, and more than 100 Americans [who] have traveled, or tried to travel into Syria.” Australia could actually have the highest number of fighters per capita.

Recruitment methods for these volunteers vary. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that European ISIS fighters are more likely to be recruited in person while Americans are more likely to self-radicalize after encountering online material.

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There’s good reason to wonder just how useful these angry young Western men—and occasionally women—are on the battlefield. The anonymous social networking site Ask.fm has emerged as a popular venue for potential Western recruits to ask questions to English-speaking ISIS fighters. Some of their questions, as reported by Radio Free Europe, include “how easy is it to get contact lenses there? are they expensive?”; “Do you think in the future they will improve wi-fi and stuff?”; “Do u have to cook for yourself and clean everyday?”; and “Could you take captured woman as slaves?”

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Despite the reassuring answers they received from their allegedly Syria-based interlocutors, none of these exactly sounds like the queries of battle-ready fighters.

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As journalist Graeme Wood writes, based on an interview with former CIA case officer Patrick Skinner, “As men without significant military training—like most jihadis from Western or upper-class backgrounds—their main purpose is to create grotesque propaganda and, perhaps, to perform the low-skill role of blowing themselves up.”

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The fighters who appeared in the Kassig video exemplified the first function. Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the Florida man who blew himself up at a mountaintop restaurant in Syria in May, exemplified both, recording a video in which he burned his U.S. passport before carrying out the attack.

Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution have argued that the foreign-fighter threat is real but exaggerated, writing:

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[T]he vast majority of Western Muslims who set out to fight in the Middle East today will not come back as terrorists. Many of them will never go home at all, instead dying in combat or joining new military campaigns elsewhere, or they will return disillusioned and not interested in bringing the violence with them. Even among the rare individuals who do harbor such intentions, most will be less dangerous than they are feared to be because they will attract the attention of authorities before they can strike. 

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And as Byman has pointed out elsewhere, “the foreign volunteers’ propensity to use social media to broadcast every detail of their jihadist lives makes them even more likely to be caught.”

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So far, while a number of terrorist plots in North America, Australia, and Europe have been linked to ISIS sympathizers, only one—the shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May—has been carried out by someone with actual experience in Syria.

Still, it seems unlikely that ISIS has recruited all of these Westerners just to make propaganda—they actually seem to be making less of it lately—or blow themselves up. And it’s also hard to imagine that a group of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters is spending its time baby-sitting a group of 2,000 incompetents.

ISIS’ Western volunteers are clearly playing a role on the ground for the Islamic State, but whether they can really take the fight home is still a mystery.

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