The number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters coming from nearly 100 countries, according to a recent United Nations (UN) report.
The Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee prepared the report for the UN Security Council.
The latest UN figures reveal a 71 percent increase in foreign recruits since the middle of last year—an increase that the UN panel of experts referred to as “higher than it has ever been historically.” In fact, the number of foreign fighters has “risen sharply from a few thousand a decade ago to more than 25,000 today.”
US intelligence officials estimate more than 150 US citizens have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. These alarming new estimates are raising concerns that the likelihood of terrorist attacks occurring around the globe is increasing. The report states that due to ease of travel the possibility of being affected by a terrorist attack “is growing, particularly with attacks targeting hotels, public spaces and venues.”
Most foreign fighters are flocking to Syria and Iraq, which have become a hotbed for terrorist training activities. The UN estimates that 20,000 foreign fighters have traveled to these two countries to join the Islamic State, Al Nusra Front, and other splinter groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The UN experts referred to Iraq and Syria as an “international finishing school for extremists” where “those who eat together and bond together can bomb together.” However, the rise of foreign fighters is not limited to Iraq and Syria. The UN estimates that 6,500 foreign fighters are in Afghanistan. Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, northern Africa and the Philippines have also seen increases in their presence.
The report also cited a "high number" of foreign fighters from Tunisia, Morocco, France and Russia, as well as an increase in fighters from the Maldives, Finland and Trinidad and Tobago.
Homeland Security Today Contributing Writer Dr. Godfrey Garner, Professor of International Terrorism at Mississippi College and Tulane University, echoed the UN’s findings, saying, “Most analysts are looking further east toward portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan as being the next big fruitful staging areas for Islamic State style extremist groups.”
“The Islamic State has been recruiting heavily in Afghanistan and recently declared ‘ownership’ of Zabul Province in southeast Afghanistan bordering on Baluchistan in Pakistan (which is another extremely unstable region). They are also making gains into Helmand Province, a little further west,” Garner said.
Contributing factors to rise in foreign fighters
Garner told Homeland Security Today the increase in the recruitment success of Islamic extremist groups can be attributed to a "perfect storm" of events. One of these factors is that Islamic extremists are adept at using social media as a tool for spreading propaganda, which particularly influences youth.
In the past, youth have been supported by concrete, stable institutions, such as church and the family. Today, however, many youth no longer have these supportive influences in their lives. Garner said “research shows that one of the commonalties in radicalized youth is a lack of foundation or structure.”
“Recruiters for Islamic extremist groups are as adept as psychiatrists or psychologists at recognizing young people who are lacking these things and searching for something concrete and foundational. Islamic extremism can easily be sold as such,” Garner said.
Similarly, Homeland Security Today previously reported that Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that the Islamic State’s sophisticated propaganda machine, particularly its use of social media, is drawing in American youth.
“This boundless virtual environment, combined with terrorists’ increasingly sophisticated use of social media, makes it increasingly difficult to protect our youth from propaganda. The Islamic State’s online media presence has become increasingly sophisticated, disseminating timely, high-quality media content across multiple platforms,” Olsen said.
In February, three British schoolgirls traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State on the “jihadi bride trail.” They were thought to join a fourth girl, from the same school, who had already arrived in Raqqa (the Syrian city where IS has its headquarters).
At the end of March, another five girls, four of whom attended the same school as the others and one who was home-schooled, were banned from leaving the country. They have had their passports removed and been made wards of court. The school in question, Bethnal Green Academy in East London, said it does not have a problem with radicalization.
Statistics may beg to differ; while the radicalization may not have occurred within the school itself, the fact that eight schoolgirls attending the same school have been radicalized shows that there is a problem with radicalization, even if it is happening elsewhere.
While radical websites such as Jihad Matchmaker are partially to blame for radicalizing young girls, many have been attracted through social media. For example, Aqsa Mahmood, a 19 year old girl who traveled from Scotland to Syria in November 2013, uses Twitter to lure young women to become jihadi brides.
“The Islamic State is extremely adept at using social media and framing messages so that they fit in and fill gaps in young people’s lives,” Garner said. “They are getting better at it as time goes on, and of course young people always admire the rebel or ‘freedom fighter’ and the quasi ‘just cause.’”
Global efforts to address record levels of foreign fighters
With the UN report noting foreign fighters “pose an immediate and long-term threat” with the ability to lead to “an urgent global security problem,” curbing their efforts poses a significant challenge.
In September 2014, the UN Security Council approved a resolution applicable to all member states making it a “serious criminal offense” for their people to travel for the purpose of engaging with militants, or to encourage or provide monetary support for others to participate in such activities.
“The world is witnessing a dramatic evolution in the nature of the terrorist threat,” the UN Secretary-General said following adoption of the resolution.
Garner believes these efforts are hindered when Western leaders send messages that subtly reinforce the Islamic extremist.
For example, as Homeland Security Today previously reported, failure to address the ideology behind these extremist organizations has allowed Islamist terrorist groups to spread like wildfire and will continue to hinder efforts to counter global jihadism unless the US begins to identify these attacks for what they are: attacks by Islamist jihadists.
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, recently testified at a House Committee on Homeland Security Hearing that failure to engage in honest dialogue on the ideology driving radical Islamist jihadists has led to the current administration describing the jihadi attack at Fort Hood as “workplace violence” and the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris as “random” killings.
“Cultural jihad is winning when the administration censors training documents and lecturers according to ‘sensitivity’ so that they cannot describe radical Islamists with any reference to the religious ideology which is the primary bond that unites them,” Gingrich said. “In the 14 years since the 9/11 attacks, we have gone a long way down the road of intellectually and morally disarming in order to appease the cultural jihadists who are increasingly aggressive in asserting their right to define how the rest of us think and talk.”
In addition, the UN report warned a military defeat of the Islamic State could have the unintended consequence of scattering foreign fighters across the world. Over the past several months, counterterrorism officials have become increasingly worried that the radicalized fighters will return to their home countries to carry out attacks.
“This evolving Islamist terror landscape has given rise to the ―dual threats of foreign fighter returnees and homegrown terrorism,” said House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX). “The recent terror attack in Paris, and other attacks and plots in Belgium, Germany, the UK, Australia, Canada and here in the US are proof that the threat has surged and that the enemy is dead set on attacking the West.”
The UN experts noted, however, that it’s possible some of these individuals may be traumatized by what they saw and need psychological help, and that others may be recruited by criminal networks. Consequently, counterterrorism efforts should not be focused solely on thwarting attacks on the homeland, but also on the related consequences of the return of foreign fighters.
Looking ahead, the UN believes the most effective policy for dealing with the skyrocketing number of foreign fighters is to prevent the radicalization, recruitment and travel of would-be fighters. The report also called for greater intelligence sharing between nations as a key to addressing the global jihadist threat.