Western Fighters in the Islamic State

The execution of American journalist James Foley this week shocked many around the world. But it wasn’t just the gruesome way he was executed that appalled so many; it was also the fact that his executioner was later identified as a British man.

While this isn’t the first time that a Westerner has been identified as fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS), this was one of the first times that a western presence within IS was seen clear as day by the thousands of viewers who had the courage to watch James Foley’s final seconds in an online video.

The idea of a British man embracing the extremist ideology of the Islamist State sent alarms ringing, particularly in the United Kingdom, where intelligence services are now racing to identify the killer in the video. Later, information emerged that a group of British IS militants dubbed “the Beatles,” with the names John, Paul, and Ringo, were the ones who had been guarding Western hostages like James Foley. Many feared that the use of a British man as the speaker for the video was an indication that IS was beginning to turn its attention to the West.

So this obviously begs the question, how many Westerners are currently fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? And more importantly, why would they commit to such an outrageous cause and what will happen if they return to their home countries?

Foreign fighters have signed up in the past to fight holy wars far away from their homes: they have previously fought in Afghanistan both against the Soviets in the 1980s and the Americans in the 2000s, in the Balkans on the side of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, and again against Americans in Iraq in the 2000s. The sheer amount of fighters from Western states now operating in Syria and Iraq, however, particularly from Western Europe, is astounding. It is currently believed that approximately 500 Britons as well as 700 French and 500 Belgians are serving with IS. Numbers on Americans vary from several dozen to a hundred.

The motivations of these fighters in Syria and Iraq can vary. Some of these young men feel like their beliefs are unwelcome in Western society. In a June 2014 report, the Soufan Group stated that a common trait among many of the foreign nationalities was that the volunteers were often characterized as “disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging.” Other reasons cited by the report include the opportunity to die as a martyr in order to be favored in the afterlife as well as the individual obligation to help a Muslim community that is under attack, both common themes found in Jihadist ideology.

Another reason for the growing numbers of western fighters has been a sophisticated outreach program conducted by the IS via social media. Its English online publication Dabiq talks of coming showdowns with “crusader armies,” establishing a caliphate, and promises that “it is only a matter of time and patience before it reaches Palestine to fight the barbaric jews [sic].” The publication has also taken a softer approach in a bid to attract professionals not necessarily interested in combat, stating that “this is more than just fighting” and that there is a role for everybody including doctors, engineers, and professionals.

While the number of Western fighters (as well as other foreigners from around the word) is frightening, what is perhaps more alarming is the growing number of western fighters that appear to have already returned home, either temporarily or permanently, after having trained and fought with extremist groups like IS. Half of the Britons are said to have already returned to the United Kingdom. Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first known American to conduct a suicide attack, also briefly revisited his Florida home prior to returning to Syria to carry out his bombing.

The return of these IS fighters, who possibly gained skills in terror tactics and bomb-making, prompts fears that they could perhaps conduct attacks in their home countries. Currently experts are worried less about large-scale ISIS-led operations and more about smaller-scale attacks like the May shooting in Brussels that left three people dead at a Jewish museum. The alleged shooter, Mehdi Memmouche, was a 29 year-old Frenchman who had traveled to Syria to join extremists. According to Barak Mendelsohn, a professor of political science at Haverford College, attacks like this are what raise questions about individuals who return from fighting in the Middle East, those who are disillusioned and traumatized, and have the intent to carry out an attack on their own. While not all of them may return as terrorists, the Soufan Group report explains that the individuals’ exposure to radicalization can have worrying unknown consequences. It remains to be seen what these individuals will do when they return – if their governments will even allow them to return at all.

For slightly outdated but more comprehensive data on where foreign fighters are coming from, please see the Soufan Group’s June 2014 report on pages 13-14. 

Photo by Voice of America via Youtube video and Wikipedia (public domain)





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