The number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and the official al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, has more than doubled in the last 18 months to between 27,000 and 31,000, revealed a new report.
That revelation comes as federal authorities in the United States announced that a Syrian-born naturalized U.S. citizen was charged with smuggling rifle scopes, night-vision goggles and other military-style gear from the United States to a Syrian rebel group linked to al-Nusra.
According to a recently released report from The Soufan Group, a New York-based international consultancy firm, “Between 27,000 and 31,000 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups from at least 86 countries,” more than double the “12,000 foreign fighters from 81 countries” identified in June 2014.
“The increase is evidence that efforts to contain the flow of foreign recruits to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have had limited impact,” notes the report.
More than half of the foreign fighters (16,240) originate from the Middle East and the Maghreb in Northwest Africa, revealed the report. About one-third (9,700) come from Western Europe and former Soviet republics, it added.
The top five foreign fighter nationalities are Tunisia (6,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500), Russia (2,400), Turkey (2,100), and Jordan (2,000).
“The number of foreign fighters from Western Europe has more than doubled since June 2014, while it has remained relatively flat in North America,” notes the report, adding, “Foreign fighters from Russia and Central Asia have shown a significant rise; some estimates suggest a near 300% increase in known fighters since June 2014.”
“The average rate of returnees to Western countries is now at around 20-30%, presenting a significant challenge to security and law enforcement agencies that must assess the threat they pose,” points out the group.
Based on official numbers, the United States has seen an estimated 150 of its citizens travel to Iraq and Syria to join jihadist groups; an estimated 40 of them have returned or attempted to return.
According to an indictment unsealed last Friday, Amin al-Baroudi, 50, who also goes by Abu al-Jud, personally brought military-style gear to Syria and arranged other deliveries between 2011 and 2013.
“The goods went to the insurgent group Ahrar el-Sham, which aims to establish an Islamic state in Syria and fights alongside al-Qaida’s official branch there, federal prosecutors said,” reports The Associated Press (AP).
“In February 2013, according to the indictment, the 50-year-old man boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Turkey with 14 pieces of checked luggage weighing more than 600 pounds total. He brought the goods across the border to Syria and returned to Los Angeles the next month with only two checked bags, prosecutors said,” adds AP.
Of the estimated 750 people who traveled from the United Kingdom, 350 have returned. Meanwhile, 1,700 French nationals have gone to Syria, with perhaps 250 returning, reports Soufan. Other Western countries experience similar rates.
“Alongside the fighters who have traveled to Syria, there is growing concern around those who decide to return, for reasons benign or otherwise. Further muddying the waters is that returning foreign fighters needs to be broken down into segments: those who have openly returned (or tried to) and those who returned unannounced and undetected, as was the case in the recent [Nov. 13] Paris attacks,” explains Soufan in a statement. “The known returnees are not a monolithic bloc, and their reasons for returning are as individual as their reasons for traveling to Syria.”
“What to do with returnees is a pressing issue for their respective countries… The process of vetting someone’s actions inside the so-called caliphate is challenging at the very least, leaving authorities with little confidence in granting leniency,” it adds. “Still, there is a wide range of legal responses to returning foreign fighters, to include: prison sentences, parole, monitoring, counseling, and the revocation of citizenship.”