leave them all behind: about those foreign fighter numbers

Wheels turning around/Into alien grounds/Pass through different times/Leave them all behind

In December 2015, The Soufan Group released a report on foreign fighter numbers that received wide press coverage, much of it misleading, jumping to the conclusion that there were now 27 000 to 31 000 fighters with IS. Samples of the reporting include:

The report continues to be referenced, most recently in an al-Jazeera report on IS activity in the Balkans.“Figures from the Soufan Group report suggest that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria has more than doubled in the past 18 months.” The assertion that the number of foreign fighters in the Syrian & Iraq conflict zones has more doubled is likely inaccurate. The Soufan Group report estimated a cumulative total for foreign fighters since the beginning of the conflict but the report left the impression that the 27 000 to 31 000 estimate was for foreign fighters currently in-country.

The report, similar to most English language reporting on the French foreign fighter contingent, misinterpreted the numbers released by the French government, asserting there had been 1800 French foreign fighters, in fact in December 2015 there had been roughly 900.

It is likely that there were not 27 000 to 31 000 fighters in country as of December 2105, for  two reasons, firstly, IS propaganda and country estimates for foreign fighter contingents suggest that foreign fighters are dying in the conflict zone. While some IS reports of deaths might be disinformation, fighters are nonetheless dying. A review of data for 16 countries gives a range of a 10% (Kyrgyzstan) to 37% (Malaysia) killed in action rate, averaging at 17%.  Secondly, fighters are leaving the conflict zone, not all of them for terrorist purposes. Returnee numbers for the same countries range from 1.2% (Kyrgyzstan) to 42% (United Kingdom), with an average of 27.3%. Since 2012, when the foreign fighter presence established itself in Syria, up to 44% of the foreign fighters might have either been killed or left the conflict zone.


Based on this estimate, and using the cumulative total from Soufan Group, a current estimate of the number of foreign fighters in country might be in the order of 15 000 to 17 000, an increase on the 12 000 reported by the Soufan Group in June 2014 but not 27 000 to 31 000 reported in December.

The numbers might be higher than the 15 000 to 17 000 estimate, as the returnee rates are higher for Western Europe than for North Africa or Central Asia. If this is the case then the returnee rate might be lower impacting the overall 44% estimate but even with a 10% returnee average as suggested by ISCR in January 2015, the range is 17 000 to 20 000 (this higher figure is in line with the ICSR estimate of January 2015). Perhaps, the total contingent ranges from 15 000 to 20 000, again not the 27 000 to 31 000 widely understood in media reports as being in-country in December 2015.

While there are difficulties in interpreting some of the country data, it is clear that the foreign fighter contingent is not exclusively comprised of military age males, there is increasing evidence of females, perhaps up to 18%. The French reported that there are 220 females in Syria and Iraq out of an estimated 600 persons currently in-country. There are also minors in the contingent, The Dutch recently reported that up to to 1/3 of the 70 Dutch minors were born in the conflict zone. The French estimate 85 minors and the Moroccans, 295.

The al-Jazeera report suggests “Statistics show a similar pattern for those specifically from the Balkans. Authors of the Soufan Group report contend that this increase “is evidence that efforts to contain the flow of foreign recruits to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have had limited impact.”

There are three reasons why this may be in the process of changing. Firstly, despite, issues around cooperation, there has been an increase in Turkish interdiction efforts – 2 783 foreign fighters as of the end of 2105 were reported to have been arrested and deported. This is compared to 1 056 reported up to January 2015.

The Turks also report denying entry to 33 746, although it is somewhat unclear what this means in reality, and this number may refer to intelligence or no entry list. The list was which was 7 833 persons in January 2015, and had grown, suggesting improving intelligence cooperation.

Secondly, Kurdish involvement in ground warfare has lead to the retaking of border crossing points. This has increasing the need for clandestine crossing and perhaps meant that poorly connected  would-be fighters, with limited aid from facilitators, are able to be picked up more easily. As reported in the Long War Journal, the YPG claim to have killed 5 875 persons in Northern Syria.This figure may be an overestimate but it does suggest that IS is losing fighters.

Thirdly, for all its problems, the Coalition air campaign and special forces operations are killing IS leaders and cadres. Examples include, Tarek al-Harzi, longtime Tunisian facilitator was killed in 2015 and Charaffe al-Mouadan, with alleged involvement in Paris attacks was killed as well.

The impact of these efforts may not be immediately apparent but will impact facilitation efforts. Current efforts while not enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters, they are gradually increasing the barriers to entry and raising the costs of remaining in Syria.

This is not to deny that the foreign fighter issue is problematic nor to suggest that the above efforts will be enough to end it. The end of the foreign fighter mobilisation, as in the case of Spain, Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Iraq, will only come from a change in the political circumstances – for example, victory for one side or a negotiated settlement – in the region, which is unlikely any time soon.