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The number of Europeans and especially Russians fighting in Syria is going way up

Silhouettes of several soldiers with rifles against a sunset.
Silhouettes of several soldiers with rifles against a sunset.
Oleg Zabielin

The number of foreign fighters going to Iraq and Syria has more than doubled in a little over a year. A new report just released from the Soufan Group (TSG) provides an updated picture of who they are and where they're coming from. The topline is that the fighters from Western Europe are increasing — but not nearly as quickly as the number of recruits from Russia and former Soviet republics.

Here's what the report says, and what it means.

The findings

  • In June 2014, the Soufan Group identified approximately 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria from 81 countries.
  • Now, nearly 18 months later, it finds that the number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq and Syria has more than doubled to between 27,000 and 31,000.
  • A big part of that increase has come from Russia and former Soviet republics. The report now finds an estimated 4,700 foreign fighters from those countries, a nearly 300 percent increase.
  • The number of foreign fighters from Western Europe has more than doubled since June 2014. The number from North America, currently only 280, has remained about flat.
  • The increase from Europe suggests that efforts to contain the flow of European recruits to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq are not really succeeding.
(The Soufan Group, December 2015)

Why the numbers are going up

It's not clear. One might think that Russia's decision to get directly involved in the Syrian civil war could explain the recent increase in foreign fighters from Russia and Central Asia. But Russia only began launching airstrikes in Syria in the beginning of October; the report covers a change going back 18 months. According to the report:

It is too early to judge how Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the regime, and the growing engagement of certain European countries in the aerial bombardment of the Islamic State, may affect the flow of recruits to Syria. However, even after a year of increasing intensity, the campaign launched against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra by the United States has made little difference to the number of recruits from North America, which has remained relatively flat.

One has to wonder whether it is in fact the reverse: Because the uptick in Russian fighters likely began before Russia intervened in Syria, could that have played a role in Putin's decision to intervene?

The report states that the majority of fighters come from the North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya and Dagestan. This makes sense, as the report explains:

The North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative.

The report suggests that "hotbeds of recruitment" — not increased military intervention or even ISIS's social media recruitment efforts — may be the best explanation: "While the power of the Islamic State’s social media outreach is undeniable, it appears more often to prepare the ground for persuasion, rather than to force the decision."

"[A]s hotbeds develop, recruitment through social media becomes less important than via direct human contact, as clusters of friends and neighbors persuade each other to travel separately or together to join the Islamic State," the report says.

The report has good news for the US

There is good news for Americans: According to the report, "Compared to the substantial increases in foreign fighters from western European countries, the flow of foreign fighters from the Americas has remained relatively stable and far lower in terms of per capita numbers."

Even more, the report also states, "There are no significant patterns of locally based recruitment in the Americas — nor recruitment hot spots — as seen in Europe and the former Soviet republics."

This means that although the numbers of foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically in the past year or so, the threat of terrorism to the US specifically from returning foreign fighters has not increased.

So bad news for a lot of other countries, but good news for the US.