Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s
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.
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
*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
|United Arab Emirates||15|
|United States of America||100|
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.
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.