ISIS in the West

The Western Militant Flow to Syria and Iraq

On Tuesday, March 22, 2016, three coordinated terrorist bombings killed 31 people and wounded around 300 more in Brussels, Belgium.

Only four days prior to the attacks, Belgian police captured Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving attacker to have participated in the Nov. 13, 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. Abdeslam told Belgian authorities after his capture that he was “ready to restart something from Brussels.”

The links between the Paris attackers and the Brussels terrorists raises the importance of understanding who the Western “foreign fighters” who have left for Syria are, how deep their networks run, and what threat they pose when they return to the West.

In order to answer these questions, New America has examined 604 militants from 26 Western countries who have been reported by credible news sources as having left their home countries to fight with ISIS or other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq. (In this updated version of the “ISIS in the West” report that New America released in November 2015, we have added 130 more individuals to our dataset.)

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 25, or 22 among women), 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. 
  • Europe faces a severe threat from well-developed jihadist networks linked to Syria. The Paris attacks succeeded because the 10 key perpetrators relied on a network of 21 militants New America has identified who aided the attackers both in Belgium and France. 
  • Few of the Western fighters who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are in government custody. Only six American militants have returned from fighting or training with militant groups in Syria, and been taken into custody.

Read the full report here.

ATTACHMENT:

ISIS in the West (March 2016)

Authors:

Albert Ford is a program associate with the International Security and Fellows programs at New America.

Alyssa Sims is a program associate with the International Security program at New America.

Peter Bergen is a journalist, documentary producer, vice president at New America, CNN national security analyst, professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the author or editor of seven books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers and four of which were named among the best non-fiction books of the year by The Washington Post.

David Sterman is a policy analyst in New America's International Security program. He holds a master's degree from Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.