06/17/2014 11:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tracking the Sunni Foreign Fighters -- A Quick Primer

In case you were living under a rock over the past week, Iraq -- a country that was essentially rebuilt from scratch by the United States after the overthrow of long-time dictator Saddam Hussein and the complete gutting of his regime -- is in complete and utter chaos. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni jihadist faction that even Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is distancing himself from, has been and remains in full battle-mode across Iraq's north and west, from the always prickly Anbar heartland to Ninewa province. And we are not talking about the usual series of mass-scale terrorist bombings in crowded marketplaces or mosques (although this is occurring with regular frequency in Shia-dominated neighborhoods in Baghdad). Instead, what we are witnessing from ISIS is a full-on, blitzkrieg-like campaign leveraging conventional-style tactics forcing tens of thousands of scared Iraqi soldiers and police into embarrassing retreat.

Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Tel Afar, and parts of Ramadi are now all in the hands of ISIS militants -- battlefield successes that have made the Iraqi security forces (trained and financed by the United States at a tune of $20 billion over 10 years) look like a bunch of disgruntled conscripts. The swift and unchallenged ISIS advance has shaken the confidence of the Iraqi government, while raising Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's blood-pressure enough to ask for a state of emergency. ISIS militants, meanwhile, are declaring their intention to sweep further south towards Baghdad, a mission that will be far more difficult given the city's fortress-like character and Shia-majority composition.

Unfortunately for the United States and its allies in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, ISIS is no longer an Iraqi phenomenon. The group, once known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the reign of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (eventually killed by a U.S. airstrike in June 2006) and then as the Islamic State of Iraq, is now an organization that is far more powerful and transnational than it's ever been. And, far from being dominated by Iraqis, ISIS has been able to draw thousands of recruits around the world to its banner.


Richard Barrett, "Foreign Fighters in Syria," The Soufan Group, June 2014

Estimating the exact size of the organization is more art than science: open-source information is often sporadic and can be easily outpaced by events on the ground. But thanks to Richard Barrett, a retired intelligence professional in Britain's MI5, formerly the UN's top sanctions man on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and now a Senior Vice President at The Soufan Group, we are now given a general, but thorough, overview of how multinational the ISIS brand is compared to its predecessor (Full Disclosure: I occasionally contribute to The Soufan Group as a freelancer).

The bottom line: "there is good evidence that fighters have travelled [to Syria] from at least 81 countries." But there is another conclusion that Barrett makes that is perhaps even more discouraging for counterterrorism analysts: the amount of foreign fighters who have arrived and fought in Syria over the past three years has already surpassed the 10,000 who traveled to Afghanistan during the ten-year jihad against the Soviet Union. That, in and of itself, is a startling statistic.

Below is a simple, pie-chart breakdown of the five top foreign contributors to the ISIS roster, showing just how international the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have become (all of these numbers, it should be noted, are only estimates, and will vary widely over the next few weeks and months).