hree coordinated terrorist bombings killed 31 people and wounded around 300 more in Brussels on March 22, 2016. Four days prior to the attacks, Belgian police captured Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving attacker from the Nov. 13, 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. Abdeslam told Belgian authorities after his capture that he was “ready to restart something from Brussels.” The links between the Paris and Brussels terrorists raise three important questions: Who are the Western “foreign fighters” who have left for Syria? How deep do their networks run? What threat they pose when they return to the West?
New America has examined 604 militants from 26 Western countries who, according to credible news sources, left their home countries to fight with ISIS or other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq. This report is an updated version of our original November 2015 report “ISIS in the West.”
- Western fighters in Syria and Iraq represent a new demographic profile, quite different from that of other Western militants who had fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Bosnia in the 1990s.
- Women are represented in unprecedented numbers. One in seven of the individuals in New America’s dataset are women. Women were rarely if at all represented among militants in previous jihadist conflicts.
- They are young. The average age for individuals in New America’s dataset is 25. For female recruits, the average age is 22. One-fifth of New America’s sample are teenagers, of whom more than a third are female.
- They are active online. Over a quarter of the Western militants in New America’s dataset were reported either to have been active in online jihadist circles or to have radicalized via interaction online. However, there continue to be cases of physical in-person recruitment.
- Many have familial ties to jihadism. One-third of the Western militants have a familial connection to jihad, whether through relatives currently fighting in Syria or Iraq, through marriage, or some other link to jihadists from prior conflicts or attacks. Of those with a familial link, over half have a relative fighting in Iraq or Syria, while almost one-third are connected through marriage, many of them new marriages conducted after arriving in Syria.
- The Americans drawn to the Syrian jihad -- 250 have tried or have succeeded in getting to Syria, according to official estimates -- share the same profile as the Western fighters overall: Women are well-represented, and the volunteers are young, they are active online, and many have family ties to jihad. More than one in seven of the Americans who traveled, attempted to travel, or supported others’ travel to Syria are women. The average age of American militants is 25, with one-fifth still in their teens. Eight out of 10 of the Americans are active in online jihadist circles.
- Only six American militants have returned from fighting or training with militant groups in Syria and been taken into custody, while another American militant returned to the United States and then left for Syria again where he conducted a suicide attack in 2014.
- This makes a total of seven American “returnees” to the States who have trained with militant groups in Syria. The numbers of returnees to European countries are orders of magnitude greater.
- Around two-fifths of Western militants in New America’s dataset have died in Syria or Iraq. Almost half of the male foreign fighters and 7 percent of female militants have been killed.
- Europe faces a severe threat from well-developed jihadist networks linked to Syria that have demonstrated their ability to conduct repeated attacks in Europe.
- The Paris attacks succeeded because the 10 key perpetrators relied on a network of 21 militants that New America has identified who aided the attackers both in Belgium and France.
- The threat to Europe is driven by the large numbers of Europeans who have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq and who have returned to the West.
- The threat to the United States from returning fighters is low and will likely be manageable. So far, no “returnee” from Syria has committed an act of violence in the United States and only one returnee has been arrested for plotting a domestic attack. Of the 27 Americans militants identified by New America who reached Syria, twelve have died, eight are at large, and seven are in custody.
- The United States should be aware of the threat posed by Western returnees from Iraq and Syria - many of whom come from Western countries that are part of the United States' visa waiver program and therefore can enter the States without a visa. These militants can also pose a threat to American targets in Europe.
- ISIS-inspired violence will pose the most likely threat to the United States. ISIS directed violence is also a possibility in the States.
- Few of the Western fighters who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are in government custody. One-fifth of Western fighters in New America’s dataset are in custody and almost two-fifths of the individuals are still at large, presumably in Syria or Iraq. (Almost all of the remaining two-fifths have been reported as dead.)
- The most popular route to Syria is through Turkey. Forty-two percent of the Western foreign fighters made their way to Syria or Iraq via Turkey. Only one has been documented as using an alternative route -- via Lebanon. For the rest of the Western militants, it’s not clear from the public record how they arrived in Syria.
- The majority of Western fighters have joined ISIS. Only one-tenth have joined Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and only seven percent have joined other smaller militant groups.
The Threat to the United States
he threat to the United States from returning fighters is low and will likely be manageable. So far, no returnee from the Syrian conflict has conducted an attack in the United States. However, the United States will have to remain aware of the threat from European returnees -- many of whom come from countries that are part of the United States’ visa waiver program. ISIS-inspired violence will pose the most likely threat to the United States.
Five years into the Syrian civil war, there is little evidence that American militants pose a significant threat of returning to conduct attacks inside the United States. Of the 94 cases of Americans that we found who have been drawn to the Syrian war, only 27 actually reached Syria. For 49 of the 94 American cases, their attempts to reach Syria did not succeed. In 18 cases the criminal activity consisted of providing support to other militants fighting in Syria or those militants attempting to fight there.
The Threat to the West Broadly
he threat facing Europe is severe. Well-developed jihadist networks in Europe -- particularly in France and Belgium -- have demonstrated their capability to conduct deadly attacks. This is particularly true of the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where, according to New America research, 13 of the 31 people associated with November’s Paris attacks are from. The threat is also driven by the large number of Europeans who have traveled to fight in Syria and the existence of more developed jihadist networks in Europe.
There are an estimated 6,900 Western fighters who have gone to fight in Syria. Several nations including France, Belgium, and Germany are reporting strains on their ability to effectively monitor returnees. According to officials interviewed by the New York Times, each French individual placed under surveillance requires 25 agents to maintain round the clock monitoring.
Western European countries face a greater threat than the United States because militants can draw upon more established jihadist networks that can give rise to more sophisticated and deadly attacks. The Paris attacks succeeded because the 10 key perpetrators relied on a network of 21 militants that New America has identified who aided the attackers both in Belgium and France. In Belgium, the Sharia4Belgium radical Salafist group actively encouraged and aided members’ travel to Syria. A total of 46 group members were eventually tried in Antwerp and convicted in February 2015.