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Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s

26/01/2015

By Peter R. Neumann, ICSR Director

The number of foreigners that have joined Sunni militant organizations in the Syria/Iraq conflict continues to rise. According to ICSR’s latest estimate, the total now exceeds 20,000 – of which nearly a fifth were residents or nationals of Western European countries.

The figures were produced in collaboration with the Munich Security Conference and will be included in the Munich Security Report – a new, annual digest on key developments in security and foreign policy.

They include estimates for 50 countries for which sufficient data and/or reliable government estimates were available. Southeast Asia remains a blind spot. Countries with 5 or less confirmed cases were omitted. With the exception of some Middle Eastern countries, all figures are based on data from the second half of 2014 and refer to the total number of travelers over the course of the entire conflict.

 

WESTERN EUROPE

Based on the 14 countries for which reliable data is available, we estimate that the number of foreigners from Western European countries has risen to almost 4,000. This is nearly double the figure we presented in December 2013, and exceeds the latest estimates by European Union officials.

The largest European countries – France, the UK, and Germany – also produce the largest numbers of fighters. Relative to population size, the most heavily affected countries are Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden.

Table 1: Western Europe

Country Estimate Per capita*
Austria 100-150 17
Belgium 440 40
Denmark 100-150 27
Finland 50-70 13
France 1,200 18
Germany 500-600 7.5
Ireland 30 7
Italy 80 1.5
Netherlands 200-250 14.5
Norway 60 12
Spain 50-100 2
Sweden 150-180 19
Switzerland 40 5
United Kingdom 500-600 9.5

 

*Up to; per million population.

 

REST OF THE WORLD

The estimated worldwide total is 20,730. This makes the conflict in Syria and Iraq the largest mobilization of foreigner fighters in Muslim majority countries since 1945. It now surpasses the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s, which is thought to have attracted up to 20,000 foreigners.

With up to 11,000, the Middle East remains the dominant source of foreigners in the conflict. Another 3,000 were from countries of the former Soviet Union.

Table 2: Rest of the World

Country Estimate
Afghanistan 50
Albania 90
Algeria 200
Australia 100-250
Bahrain 12
Bosnia 330
Canada 100
China 300
Egypt 360
Israel/Palest. Territories 120
Jordan 1,500
Kazakhstan 250
Kosovo 100-150
Kuwait 70
Kyrgyzstan 100
Lebanon 900
Libya 600
Macedonia 12
Morocco 1,500
New Zealand 6
Pakistan 500
Qatar 15
Russia 800-1,500
Saudi-Arabia 1,500-2,500
Serbia 50-70
Somalia 70
Sudan 100
Tajikistan 190
Turkey 600
Turkmenistan 360
Tunisia 1,500-3,000
Ukraine 50
United Arab Emirates 15
United States of America 100
Uzbekistan 500
Yemen 110

 

RETURNEES

All figures are ‘conflict totals’. We estimate that between 5-10 per cent of the foreigners have died, and that a further 10-30 per cent have left the conflict zone, returning home or being stuck in transit countries. As a consequence, the number of foreigners that are currently on the ground in Syria and Iraq is likely to be significantly less than the figures provided.

 

BACKGROUND

ICSR has kept track of the number of foreign jihadist fighters in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict since 2012. We have published estimates in April and December 2013, and updated our figures in the run-up to UN Security Council Resolution 2178 in September 2014, for which ICSR served as external advisors.

 

As with previous estimates, it should be stressed that counting foreign fighters is no exact science. Our methodology has, in essence, remained the same (see here), except that we now have more experience in dealing with external sources and a greater number of credible government estimates. Other governmental and non-governmental organizations – working independently of us and using different sources and methods – have arrived at similar results.