i see red: “guesstimating” the number of New Zealand foreign fighters and potential travellers

How could someone wicked walk around free? I see red, I see red, I see red

It seems with the UNSC on foreign fighters, heads of state talking about the foreign fighter thing is a thing. The Prime Minister of New Zealand recently remarked that, “If I was to spell out to New Zealanders the exact number of people looking to leave and be foreign fighters, it would be larger, I think, than New Zealanders would expect that number to be.” He also added that “The number currently fighting overseas . . . is relatively small but it’s certainly far more than one or two.”

How many foreign fighters from New Zealand have traveled to Syria and how many want to travel? To-date information on five persons involved in foreign fighter activity with ties to New Zealand has emerged in press reports. This includes two persons who travelled to Syria and three persons who, either had their passports removed or were arrested prior to travel, one of them in Australia.

As a Professor of Biostatistics in New Zealand has pointed out it is hard to ‘”get accurate estimates of the size of small subpopulations, even with large, well-designed surveys.” They added that, “New Zealanders probably don’t have any very well formed expectations for that [foreign fighter] number, since we have basically no information to go on. My guess would be along the lines of “Not very many, but people are strange,  so probably some.” I’d be surprised if it were less than 10 or more than 100.”

So, is it possible to estimate based on the experience of other countries how many foreign fighters and their supporters are being referred to? The short answer is, no, not really. Analysis of the relationship between population size and the size of foreign fighter contingents shows no clear correlation between the two variables (based on a sample of estimates for 64 countries). The United States has only 12 foreign fighters currently in Syria and Iraq and three other countries with very large populations have small numbers of fighters relative to the population : China (100 – 200), India (10) and Indonesia (66 to 100). Countries with smaller population bases like Lebanon (890 – this figure excludes Shia fighters) or Jordan (2000) have large numbers of fighters relative to their population sizes. This suggests that factors other than population are important in influencing foreign fighter contingent size. In the case of Syria, proximity and social media as well as prior networks have been advanced as reasons. Although as will be seen in the case of Australia, distance is not necessarily an insurmountable barrier.


But for the sake of argument, and suspending belief on the absence of a relationship between population and foreign fighter numbers, using estimates of foreign fighters from New Zealand’s nearest neighbour, Australia (4.18 fighters per million), would suggest that there could be 36 persons involved in foreign fighter activity with links to New Zealand. Estimates of foreign fighters for a similar sized country, Ireland (6.54 fighters per million), would suggest that there could be 57 persons involved in foreign fighter activity.

Comparing ourselves to the neighbour

One way of trying to guess the size of the New Zealand foreign fighter contingent is to compare New Zealand and Australia. This is problematic as well-known cultural and linguistic differences – preferred type of rugby, origins of pavlova, the correct way to pronounce the number six – limit the validity of this comparison. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, Australia has an estimated 95 fighters who have traveled to Syria and Iraq, including 60 fighters in either Syria or Iraq, 15 dead, and 20 returnees. There are 100 foreign fighter ‘supporters’ still in Australia and 45 passports have been confiscated. It is assumed here that the 45 persons without passports are a subset of the first group.

So, for New Zealand there could be:

  • 18.39 foreign fighters (using the 4.18 foreign fighters per million in Australia multiplied by the New Zealand population divided by one million i.e. 4.4 X 4.18).
    • 2.88 dead foreign fighters (using the 15.7% casualty rate for Australian foreign fighters).
    • 3.86 returned foreign fighters (using the 21% returnee rate for Australian foreign fighters).
  • 18.39 would-be travellers/supporters based on an approximate 1 to 1 traveler to supporter ratio.
    • 8.71 passport seizures based on the 45 seized passports in Australia divided by the population per million and then adjusted for the size of the New Zealand population.

A ‘guesstimate’ of the New Zealand foreign fighter population – assuming the would be travelers are the same as those who have had their passports seized – is approximately 36 persons either in New Zealand or Syria and Iraq.

Small countries, big numbers

The table below shows foreign fighter estimates for countries with populations between 2.6 million and 5.6 million. Foreign fighter numbers range from 890 in Lebanon to 2 in New Zealand and Turkmenistan again reinforcing the point that population size is not a good predictor of foreign fighter numbers.

Country Foreign Fighters Dead Foreign Fighters Returnees Population Fighters Per Million
Kuwait 70 2 NA 3250496 21,54
Bosnia and Herzegovina 150 20 50 3833916 39,12
West Bank and Gaza 114 6 NA 4046901 28,17
Lebanon 890 6 NA 4424888 201,14
New Zealand 2 NA NA 4433000 0,45
Georgia 100 NA NA 4490700 22,27
Ireland 30 3 1 4586897 6,54
Norway 50 10 10 5018573 9,96
Turkmenistan 2 NA NA 5172931 0,39
Singapore 3 NA NA 5312400 0,56
Finland 40 3 NA 5413971 7,39
Denmark 100 15 45 5591572 17,88
Kyrgyz Republic 30 8 NA 5607200 5,35

Despite problems with the population-size based comparison, using the Irish estimates for a similar sized population and a broadly similar western-style democracy and similar cultural features (milk-production, rugby including a similar assessment of the English team, and beer drinking) gives the following results for New Zealand:

  • 28.77 foreign fighters (using the 6.54 fighters per million estimate)
    • 2.87 dead foreign fighters (using the Irish casualty rate of 10%)
    • 0.95 returned foreign fighters (using the Irish returnee rate of 3%)
  • Using the Australian numbers for supporters – in the absence of information on this population in Ireland – equates to 28.77 person.
  • A total of 57 persons involved in foreign fighter activity in New Zealand or Syria and Iraq.

If these numbers were accurate (and they most likely are not), then based on research on foreign fighter engagement in domestic terrorist activity post-foreign fighting which suggests that ‘one in nine’ foreign fighters return to plot and or participate in attacks, there could be between 4 to 6 persons susceptible to be at risk of attempting a terrorist act in New Zealand. This assumes that everybody in the New Zealand foreign fighter population does actually travel.

The numbers are ‘guesstimates’ and despite the fact that the scale of the foreign fighter problem might be ‘larger…than New Zealanders would expect’ there is also a problem of an absence of research about this issue in New Zealand compared to Australia where academics and researchers – Leah Farrell, Shandon Harris-Hogan, Gaetano Joe Ilardi, Pete Lentini, and Andrew Zammit among others – have produced studies which provide excellent background and a granular understanding of the situation in Australia and further afield. Studies and research in Australia mean that Australians, should they so wish, have access to information derived from rigorous research about terrorism, foreign fighting and political violence and are not reliant on occasional comments from politicians for information.