European fighters in Syria more than double, posing terror threat as they begin to return home

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
European fighters in Syria more than double, posing terror threat as they begin to return home

The number of fighters from Western Europe pouring into Syria has more than doubled since last year, swelling the ranks of the Islamic State and other extremist groups by more than 30,000 despite efforts by the U.S. and other Western countries to cut off the flow, according to a new report by an international security firm.

There is also mounting evidence that significant numbers of these fighters — an average of between 20 percent and 30 percent — are starting to return to their home countries, posing threats that became a grisly reality in the November 13 attacks in Paris, which were coordinated by an ISIS recruit who returned to France, the authors of the report warn.

“All of our assumptions about our ability to monitor these people have been proven faulty,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism officer and one of the authors of the report prepared by the Soufan Group.

“When you look at France or Belgium — they have a massive problem,” Skinner added. “It’s clear they haven’t been able to stop people from going — and it’s painfully clear they haven’t stopped people from coming back. It’s the round-trip nature of this that is really worrisome.”

The report also suggests that the motivation for those joining the fight is often more personal than political, and may well be immune to the “countering radical extremism” messaging that U.S. and other officials have touted as a potential solution to the problem.

“A search for belonging, purpose, adventure and friendship appear to remain the main reasons for people to join the Islamic State, just as they remain the least-addressed issues in the international fight against terrorism,” the report states.

The report — with detailed, country-by-country breakdowns on the flow of foreign fighters — offers a sobering and in some cases more downbeat perspective on the state of the war against ISIS than the one President Obama offered the country in a nationally televised speech Sunday night.

Before U.S. officials began calling attention to the problem, the Soufan Group was among the first to highlight the threat posed by foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq in a major report it released in June 2014. Basing its figures on open-source reporting, official government estimates and private interviews with U.S. and allied intelligence officials, the consulting firm estimated at the time that about 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 countries had flocked to Syria and Iraq.

The new report puts the figure at between 27,000 and 31,000 from at least 86 countries. That is consistent with current U.S. intelligence estimates, updated in just the last few weeks, of about 30,000.

The Soufan Group accepts official U.S. estimates that about 250 of these have come, or attempted to come, from the United States, up from about 120 last year. (A U.S. intelligence official told Yahoo News that about two dozen Americans are also now believed to have died after traveling to Syria to join the conflict.)

The numbers from Western Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Republics are far more pronounced — and rapidly accelerating. It estimates, for example, that about 5,000 fighters from European Union countries have flocked to the conflict, up from 2,500 in June 2014, with more than two- thirds of them coming from just four countries. The number from France is estimated at 1,700 (up from 700 last year); from the U.K. 760 (up from 400 last year); from Germany, 760 (up from 270 last year; and from Belgium, 470 (up from 250 last year.)

One huge source of the flow has been Russia — a major reason cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to begin military strikes in Syria. The report estimates that about 2,400 fighters have come from Russia, up from 800 last year. The largest sources, however, remains Tunisia — about 6,000 (twice the estimate from last year); Turkey, between 2,000 and 2,200 (up from 400 last year); and 2,500 from Saudi Arabia (the same number as last year.)

In his talk from the Oval Office Sunday night, President Obama promised an intensification of air strikes and special operations forces against the ISIS. But he offered no major change in U.S. strategy and again vowed to avoid sending a large influx of U.S. ground troops to dislodge ISIS from the territory it now holds.

But Skinner of the Soufan Group said it is increasingly clear that the flow of fighters will not stop until the ISIS suffers a decisive defeat on the ground. “Until the Islamic State is demonstrably defeated, militarily — until they get toppled from Mosul and Raqqa, they will continue to be a magnet,” he said. “They need to have an undeniable loss.”