After years of being treated as a niche topic, the rise of the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq has moved the issue of foreign fighters from academic journals and wonky conferences to the front pages of major newspapers. But this has long been a topic of both personal and professional interest to me, beginning when I served alongside an Iraqi infantry battalion in western Ninevah province in 2006-2007. During my deployment in Ninevah, al Qaeda in Iraq exploited the numerous wadis (or dry riverbeds) across the Iraqi-Syrian border as their “ratlines” to move in and out of Iraq and to carry out horrendous acts of sectarian violence and terror. I returned to the United States to run anumber ofconferences and panelson foreign fighters at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The scale of the current rush of foreign fighters going to fight in Syria and Iraq, however, is unprecedented, their numbers dwarf those of their predecessors in 1980s Afghanistan and in Iraq of the noughties. An estimated 15,000men and women from 80 or more countries have gone to fight there. The foreign fighters involved in the Soviet-Afghan and the Iraq War (2003-2011) are greatly celebrated in the jihadist martyrdom canon, but they only reached a small fraction of what the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has attracted. But those conflicts unleashed whatClint Watts has described as the first and second foreign fighter gluts, respectively. The veterans of those conflicts seeded the jihadist movement in places such as Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, and Dagestan, spawning the al Qaeda network and other jihadist organizations. The ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Syria will unleash a third foreign fighter glut that will likely create further regional and global security concerns, and exacerbate existing ones.
While a majority of these fighters come from countries near the conflict zone, the number of fighters from the West is also much higher than in past conflicts, and remains a cause for concern. Estimates of Western foreign fighters range between 2000 and 5000, of which between 100 and 300 are from the United States. The May 24, 2014 murders at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels by the ISIL veteran Mehdi Nemmouche and the disrupted ISIL-linked plot by Australian authorities of individuals wanting to commit “propaganda of the deed” beheadings of unsuspecting victims down under show that there are real concerns about fighters returning from the conflict zone. This is especially true of foreign fighter veterans who hold “golden passports” that allow for visa waiver travel.