Thanks to the jihadi version of an Edward Snowden data dump, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point now hosts documented evidence of who has joined the Islamic State’s ranks. When compared to other Islamic State foreign fighters estimates or to the last decade’s foreign fighter flows to Iraq, this new data shows that Europe’s foreign fighter recruitment rate is growing far faster than that of any other region. The dangers of unaddressed foreign fighter facilitators and new foreign fighter currents spell trouble on the horizon.
The Problem with Foreign Fighter Estimates
Foreign fighter numbers to the Islamic State and al Qaeda routinely surface in the media, each larger and more alarming than the last. These estimates are fraught with analytical danger. First, they often focus on raw numbers of recruits heading off to Syria and Iraq rather than the rate of recruitment per capita. These counts, often just guesses, completely miss the point. More populous countries will almost always, and should be expected to have, the largest count of foreign fighters in a sample. Another common misstep comes when analysts calculate foreign fighter recruitment rates using a country’s total population. This too is a deceptive method by which to measure the problem. The most accurate foreign fighter recruitment comes from measuring the raw count of fighters against the Sunni Muslim population of a country, which is often a small subset of a country’s total, especially in Europe. Another set of problems arises when analysts take distinct foreign fighter samples as representative of the entire foreign fighter population. For example, the Sinjar records showing foreign fighters to Iraq provided the best source of data last decade, but it represented only one foreign fighter transit point into Iraq and only those recruits entering during 2006 and 2007. External, open-source foreign fighter estimates prior to the recent Islamic State data dump relied principally on social media aggregation and thus missed pockets of members who were physically recruited or arrived from countries where social media participation is either less common or heavily surveilled (as in Russia).
Understanding true foreign fighter trends and overcoming the challenges noted above requires examination of multiple foreign fighter samples from different time periods and collection points. Comparing each country’s rates of recruitment and proportions of fighters from this recent Islamic State archive alongside five other samples from this decade and the last illuminates several insights into the current state of jihadi participation. I compared the following six foreign fighter samples:…