HUFFINGTON POST
11/08/2014 11:30 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

15,000 Foreign Fighters Have Joined Extremist Groups In Iraq And Syria. Here's Why They Went

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we look at the foreign fighters joining the wars in Syria and Iraq.

Last week, the United Nations warned in a new report that terror groups in countries like Syria and Iraq are recruiting foreigners on an "unprecedented scale." An estimated 15,000 radicals from more than 80 nations are believed to have flocked to both war-torn nations to join extremist groups battling there. In its report, the U.N. said that that the foreign fighters could "form the core of a new diaspora that may seed the threat for years to come. "

The WorldPost spoke with Peter Neumann, a professor at King's College in London and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, about the profile and the motivations of the foreigners who have joined groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq. "There are certainly justified fears about this population, although there's no reason to be alarmist," Neumann says.

Who heads to Iraq and Syria to fight?

Various reports indicate that up to 15,000 fighters have gone to Syria and Iraq over the past three years to join the Sunni side. Of those 15,000, about 60 to 70 percent come from Middle Eastern countries, and about 20 to 25 percent come from Western countries, including Western Europe, the United States and Australia.

Foreign fighters are not a monolithic entity, and not every one of them is like the guys you see in recruitment videos. Young people are going, quite old people are going, even women are going. Their motivations vary as well. At first, a lot of people joined because they were motivated by the plight of the Syrians. They were certainly Islamists, but they were not necessarily full-blown jihadists. Of those who traveled to Iraq and Syria more recently, many are very ideologically motivated. For some, there's also an element of adventure. The idea of fighting and using guns is clearly exciting a lot of people.

While there was a bit of a stagnation in recruitment numbers earlier this year, the numbers have gone up again. People have been reenergized by the declaration of the Islamic State, by what they see as a caliphate, by the military victories and by the Western intervention there. People who are particularly motivated by the idea of a battle between the West and Islam are now identifying with that particular struggle more than they used to a year or two ago.

What groups are these foreign fighters joining?

About 80 percent of the Westerners end up with the Islamic State, and some join Jabhat al-Nusra. Very few join any of the more nationalist, secular and moderate groups.

Do fighters from countries like Algeria and Tunisia follow different paths from Western fighters?

The patterns differ from country to country. With 3,000 and 2,500 fighters respectively, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are the countries that recruit the most foreign fighters. Those people go to all kinds of groups. There are recruitment networks in place in a lot of these countries, and they have special relationships with particular groups. There are hardly any Westerners in Ahrar al-Sham, for example, but the group has lot of fighters from the Gulf.

What makes the Islamic State so appealing to Western fighters?

There are different factors at play. For a long time, IS was the only group that consistently did outreach in Western languages. In terms of the message, it also seems that it is also the most attractive group for people who want to fight for an ideology rather than for a free Syria.

The Islamic State is also less selective than a lot of other groups. If you come from the West, don't speak Arabic, you're not a particularly good fighter and don't have a particular skill, IS will probably still accept you. Jabhat al-Nusra is a lot more selective, for example. You have to bring references and have to show that you're quite religious and can be useful to the group.

This is not the first conflict to see the influx of fighters from abroad. What is different this time?

The act of foreign fighting, the idea that people get mobilized for a conflict they are not directly involved in on the basis of a transnational ideology, is something that we’ve seen for centuries. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s attracted people from all over the world. The Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s mobilized up to 20,000 foreign fighters.

That last conflict is significant because what we're seeing playing out in Syria could actually be very similar. At the end of the Afghanistan conflict, fighters couldn’t go back to their home countries, and many decided to go from battlefront to battlefront. Al-Qaeda eventually came out of these networks.

That's of course the fear now. Thousands of fighters are making connections in Syria. At the end of the conflict, you’ll have thousands of people who are extremely brutalized, who have the skills to be a fighter or terrorist, with nothing to do.

What makes the current conflict different from for example the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s are the aims that people are fighting for. In the Spanish Civil War, left-wing people went to Spain to fight against fascism. I personally have a lot more sympathy for that motivation than for jihadis who want to create a society that's either killing or suppressing minorities. The act of fighting is the same, but the ultimate aim of the movement is very, very different.

In addition to the fear that radicalized fighters are establishing new connections, what other dangers does the recruitment of foreign fighters by groups like the Islamic State pose?

Foreign fighters tend to make conflicts worse because they are often very ideologically motivated and are more dependent on the group. They are often used for very brutal operations that locals refuse to carry out. In the Syrian conflict, suicide bombings, beheadings or torture are almost always carried out by foreigners. Foreign fighters have already made the conflict in Syria more sectarian, more extreme and harder to resolve.

Secondly, when the conflict ends, there will be a large number of people who are skilled, brutalized and interconnected. There's of course a fear they will become involved in terrorism. One study has shown that 1 in 9 foreign fighters subsequently becomes involved in terrorism in their home countries. Other studies show that number may be slightly higher. There are also studies that indicate that if these people do become terrorists, they are better at it and are more lethal.

There are certainly justified fears about this population, although there's no reason to be alarmist.

How should governments respond to these threats?

If there’s a reasonable suspicion that someone is about to go join a militant group in Syria or Iraq, I would be in favor of taking away their passports and preventing them from traveling.

The long-term approach needs to be about prevention. We found that for a lot of people going over there, their experiences turn out to be very different than what they were promised. The true story of what it’s like to be a foreign fighter needs to be told. When you go over there, the Syrian population doesn't really like you. You'll probably end up fighting other Muslim groups that you kind of sympathize with. You may even die or be killed.

What should we expect when those fighters return home?

You’ll find different groups of people. There are people who are going to be dangerous, who do present security challenges for Western countries. They hate the West, and will probably become involved in attacks or are already talking about it.

There are clearly people who will be disturbed, rather than dangerous. They will be traumatized by the conflict, the things they’ve seen and the things they’ve experienced. They are a risk to society, not necessarily because of their extremist ideology but because they are messed up in their head.

And there’s a third group, that’s often being forgotten. Some people will be disillusioned. We’re already seeing that some of the fighters who were there are feeling like they’re trapped. They are disillusioned by what they've seen and no longer want to stay, but at same time they can’t go back to their home country because they will be arrested.

There needs to be a different solution for each of these groups.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.

More from the WorldPost on the Islamic State:

- Here's what we know about how ISIS is run
- 3 new findings about ISIS weapons
- How ISIS makes $3 million a day
- The 9 biggest ISIS myths debunked
- 15 numbers that will make you pay attention to what ISIS is doing in Iraq
- The strange irony hidden among the highest ranks of ISIS
- A group too extreme for al-Qaeda just took over Iraq's second largest city

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
Syria War In October
CONVERSATIONS