The Program on Extremism at George Washington University has published its latest report on American foreign fighters, The Other Travelers: American Jihadist Beyond Syria and Iraq. Authored by Program on Extremism researchers Seamus Hughes, Emily Blackburn, and Andrew Mines, it identifies 36 American foreign fighters who have traveled to foreign conflict zones beyond Syria and Iraq.
The majority of these foreign fighters (74%) traveled to Afghanistan-Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen highlighting the persistence of the international terrorism threat.
The mobilization of American foreign fighters to Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq garnered extensive policy and media attention over the last several years. Following the decline of the Islamic State’s territorial holdings, attention shifted to the remaining foreign fighters who either attempted to return to their home countries or were detained in Syria and Iraq. Little focus has been paid, however, to the Americans who traveled—and continue to travel—to hotspots beyond Syria and Iraq.
As the threat posed by jihadist groups overseas adjusts to new geopolitical dynamics, taking stock of these travelers in alternate theaters helps makes sense of the next possible phases of foreign fighter mobilization. The report examines cases of Americans who traveled or attempted to travel to jihadist conflict theaters outside of Syria and Iraq between January 2011 and July 2019, specifically Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak), Libya, Mali, Nigeria, the Sinai Peninsula, Somalia, and Yemen.
The report finds that despite the Islamic State’s and al-Qaeda’s calls for foreign jihadists to travel to join a multitude of local affiliates, the majority of American jihadist travelers gravitated to just three hotspots outside Syria and Iraq (Af-Pak, Somalia, and Yemen). American jihadist travelers continued to join the same alternate theaters in the years leading up to, during, and after the loss of territory by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Foreign fighter flows are notoriously difficult to track. Given the sensitive nature of this type of research, it is likely that many American jihadist travelers will never be publicly identified. However, through open source research—including court records, media reports, interviews with law enforcement officials, and Freedom of Information Act requests— the authors identified 36 who attempted or successfully traveled overseas to join jihadist groups outside of Syria and Iraq.
Because the number of travelers and attempted travelers is relatively small, it is difficult to make sweeping statements about this category of American foreign fighters. Nonetheless, of those 36 individuals:
- Ten successfully traveled to their intended destinations and 26 attempted to travel.
- The majority (74%) attempted to travel to three jihadist hotspots: the Af-Pak region, Somalia, and Yemen.
- While al-Qaeda and its affiliates drew 79% of known American travelers before the rise of the Islamic State, after 2014 the Islamic State and its affiliates drew 73% of all known American travelers.
- Travelers who succeeded in reaching their target destinations received significantly longer sentences (273 months on average) than those who were unsuccessful (186 months on average).
- The average age was 23.5 years-old and the vast majority were men, with only one woman identified.
The report authors state that while the “post-caliphate” era is in its nascent stages, their research signals that a next possible wave of travelers is feasible, albeit on a smaller scale. Jihadist mobilizations are cyclical, and until a group is able to seize territory, consolidate power, and embark on a sophisticated global messaging strategy similar to that of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to see an equivalent mobilization of American travelers similar to the caliphate period. As barriers impeding potential travelers continue to rise, the authors warn that it is likely that supporters will continue turning their focus inward to attacking the homeland.