From 2013 through 2014, the Islamic State recruited tens of thousands of fighters from all corners of the globe to fight in Syria. In 2016, NBC News obtained and reported on a cache of Islamic State personnel files it received from a Syrian man who said he stole a flash drive containing the files from a senior commander in the group. These files, which NBC shared with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC), provided extensive insights into the Islamic State’s recruitment of foreign fighters.
One of these key insights was that the vast majority of the Islamic State’s foreign recruits were new to armed jihad. (Islamic State fighters had been asked to report their previous jihadi experience.) An analysis of the Islamic State personnel records by CTC’s Brian Dodwell, Daniel Milton, and Don Rassler found that the percentage of fighters who reported prior jihadi experience was “relatively low” at 9.6% and that about a quarter of those who reported previous jihadi experience reported it only in Syria.
In their analysis of the Islamic State files, Dodwell, Milton, and Rassler note that the top location where Islamic State fighters reported experience outside of Syria was Libya, with about 70 cases, followed by Afghanistan, with about 60 cases. Beyond these two countries, Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Gaza were reported, each with 20 or fewer fighters. The initial report, however, did not provide an analysis of the ways in which veterans of jihad in these different regions vary, noting, “it is beyond the scope of this initial report to provide a detailed and comprehensive breakdown of the variety groups that the Islamic State’s new recruits had access to at this time.”