ISIS in the West

The New Faces of Extremism
Policy Paper
Nov. 16, 2015

Who exactly are the estimated 4,500 Westerners drawn to join ISIS and other militant groups in Syria, and how great of a threat do they pose? In the wake of Friday’s harrowing terrorist attacks in Paris, New America’s Peter Bergen, Courtney Schuster, and David Sterman are today publishing “ISIS in the West: The New Faces of Extremism,” a new report reviewing what we know about the Westerners drawn to Jihadist groups.

New America has collected information about 475 individuals from 25 Western countries who have been reported by credible news sources as having left their home countries to join ISIS or other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq.

The report finds:

  • Western fighters in Syria and Iraq represent a new demographic profile. An unprecedented number of the militant recruits are female, young (with an average age of 24), and active in online jihadist circles. This is quite different from Western militants who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Bosnia in the 1990s.

  • Many have familial ties to jihadism. One-third of Western fighters have a familial connection to jihad, whether through relatives currently fighting in Syria or Iraq, marriage, or some other link to jihadists from prior conflicts or terrorist attacks.

  • The likeliest threat to the U.S. comes from ISIS-inspired violence. Returning fighters from Syria pose a limited threat to the U.S., while the threat from returning fighters to other Western countries is greater.

  • Few of the Western fighters who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are in government custody. Only one-sixth of Western fighters in New America’s dataset are in custody and over two-fifths of the individuals are still at large.

  • The wars in Syria and Iraq have proven deadly for Western militants. Almost two-fifths of Western fighters in New America’s dataset have been reported as dead in Syria or Iraq. Almost half of the male foreign fighters and 6 percent of female militants have been killed.

  • The majority of Western fighters have joined ISIS. Only one-tenth have joined Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and only 6 percent have joined other smaller groups.

  • The most popular route to Syria is through Turkey. Forty-two percent of the Western foreign fighters made their way to Syria or Iraq via Turkey.

On Tuesday, November 17, New America will hold an event to further discuss findings from the report. Please RSVP here to attend. On Wednesday, November 18, Peter Bergen will be testifying about ISIS and the West at a joint hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Homeland Security.

Read the full report here.