October 1, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Failing to Stem the Flow of Foreign Fighters

• This week, both the UN and a U.S. Congressional committee reported that efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria have proved ineffective

• Both the UN and U.S. estimates find that nearly 30,000 people have traveled to Syria; the monthly rate of 1,000 remains unchanged, despite international focus on the issue

• The numbers reflect both the difficulty in countering the Islamic State’s ideological message and in disrupting global travel

• As long as the Islamic State maintains its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria, it will continue to serve as a magnet for those seeking to live, fight, or die in the country.


Similar to the frustrated military fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the international fight to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria appears stalemated as well. This week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon disclosed that the UN estimates that 30,000 people from 104 countries have traveled to Syria, up from an estimated 25,000 in an August UN report. In line with this estimate, a report released on September 30 by a bipartisan U.S. Congressional committee puts the number of fighters at nearly 30,000.

These estimates double last year's count, indicating that there are serious unmet challenges to the year-long global focus on stemming the tide of foreign fighters. The U.S. report notes that an estimated 1,000 people per month are able to travel into Syria for the purpose of joining the Islamic State. This rate is the same as has been reported frequently since last September—despite the significant resources being thrown at the problem. If these estimates are accurate, the Islamic State is more than replenishing its losses on the battlefield and through defections.

There are two main challenges confronting the vital effort to reduce and disrupt foreign fighter travel into Syria. The first is the ideological appeal of the Islamic State across a broad spectrum of people, primarily those in their mid-20s or younger. By utilizing social media, the Islamic State ensures that its target audiencedisaffected or dangerous people, pulling away from their societies and communities—will easily find the Islamic State’s message, be it on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, or countless other online forums.

The second challenge is that Turkey, the most frequented gateway into Syria for foreign fighters, is a legitimate travel destination for millions of international visitors each year. It is obviously impossible to ban travel to Turkey, and the Turkish border—like most international borders—cannot be effectively closed or guarded; if a person can enter Turkey, they can likely enter Syria. The U.S. report notes that there are now well-established and efficient networks facilitating travel for foreign fighters. This means that in the arc of radicalization—from curious online browsing to fighting for the Islamic State—travel is probably the smoothest part of the process.

As long as the Islamic State maintains its self-proclaimed caliphate and fighting continues to rage in Syria, the group will continue to draw thousands of new recruits despite the attention to its dangers and the efforts to counter its appeal.


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