By: Franck Düvell, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher
On 30 October 2014, the Washington Post reported the flow of over 15,000 foreigner fighters to Syria and probably also to Iraq. They suggested that each month around 1,000 people travel to Syria, mostly with the intention to join the fights, and thus to join the killing. A map shows the countries where these people have been coming from and their numbers: Tunisia (3,000), Saudia Arabia (2,500), Jordan (2,089), Morocco (1,500), Lebanon (890), (Russia (800), Libya (556), UK (488), France (412), Turkey (400), Egypt (358), Pakistan (330), Belgium (296), Algeria (250), Australia (250), Germany (240) (Washington Post). About 5,000 came from the Middle East, another 5,000 from Northern Africa and 3,200 from Western and Northern countries. In total, 53 countries are listed, suggesting a global phenomenon.
This information is based on sources from the CIA, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and the Soufan Group research (2014). How accurate these figures are is certainly disputable, national estimates are sometimes higher. For instance, German sources refer to ‘at least 600’ (Der Stern 16/1/2015), and French sources to 930, people who went to Syria and Iraq (RFLRL 25/1/2015). A related feature is the return of fighters to the countries where they have been coming from. The returnees may be disillusioned and they may be traumatised but they may also be radicalised and aiming at taking the fight back to the perceived enemy countries in the west. In the UK ‘about 250 are believed to have returned’ (BBC News, 14/11/2014), in Germany, their number is put at 200 (Der Stern 16/1/2015).
However, foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are not isolated occurrences; foreigners also join fights in other parts of the world. Most notably, in Ukraine, Russians and other nationalities are joining the separatists to fight against the Ukrainian central government (BBC News 1/9/2014). Foreign fighters are also reported from the conflicts in Libya (All Africa 6/1/2015). The current situation is not new.,In the recent past volunteers have joined foreign guerrillas and fights in other countries, like in the 1980s and 1990 in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Palestine and Kurdistan, and more recently in Afghanistan and Chechnya. For instance, some German leftists joined the PLO or PFLP, the PKK or the Sandinistas and FMLN and others. Most of these, however, were individual cases and there was no large scale trend. Historically there are numerous cases of volunteers and mercenaries joining fights like French and Germans who joined the American independence forces.