Who Are The

Returning Fighters

Migrants leaving Iraq and Syria stand to bring their credibility, skills, and networks to bear in new areas. These migrants should be thought of as “militant entrepreneurs” capable of aggravating simmering social discontent or conducting attacks themselves.1 These entrepreneurs will likely leverage the same social, diaspora, and patronage networks to shift to new areas as they did to get to Syria.2

This generation of migrating fighters is almost certainly more dangerous than those that preceded it, given that foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria are much more likely to face direct combat and serve in leadership roles. In November 2016, a West Point Counterterrorism Center study found that 9 percent of documented returning fighters held leadership positions in the groups that they left.3 The West Point authors note that this number is incredibly high, especially given the fact that foreign fighters often faced language barriers, had limited operational experience prior to traveling, and were less familiar with group ideology. Those not serving in a leadership capacity were also more likely to face direct combat—with 80 percent of those surveyed served as foot soldiers and only 12 percent serving in noncombat “auxiliary capacities.”4

Migrants leaving Iraq and Syria stand to bring their credibility, skills, and networks to bear in new areas. These migrants should be thought of as “militant entrepreneurs” capable of aggravating simmering social discontent or conducting attacks themselves.

However, being closer to the front lines also means foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria face much higher mortality rates than previous foreign fighter waves, especially the “Afghan Arabs.”5 Another limiting factor is that more active security services also mean fighters are more likely to be arrested upon arrival or shortly thereafter. In West Point’s study, nearly 90 percent of the fighters tracked were put in jail.6

Although attrition and arrest will mitigate the effect of potential migration, the scale of today’s foreign fighter problem is extraordinary—and prison is not a panacea. Approximately 40,000 individuals from over 120 countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria.7 If imprisoned upon their return, fighters often face light sentencing guidelines and can use their short time to recruit new members or even direct attacks.8 It is therefore reasonable to assume that the Islamic State’s decline in Iraq and Syria will likely precipitate an unprecedented migration of foreign fighters—fighters who are not only more dangerous, but will spread to a wider swath of countries than ever before.



Next Chapter: Where are Foreign Fighters going?

1. Thomas Hegghammer, “The Future of Jihadism in Europe: A Pessimistic View,” Perspectives on Terrorism 10, no. 6 (2016), https://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/566/html; Petter Nesser, Anne Stenersen, and Emilie Oftedal, “Jihadi Terrorism in Europe: The IS-Effect,” Perspectives on Terrorism 10, no. 6 (2016), https://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/553/html.

2. Holman, “‘Gonna Get Myself Connected,’” 13–14.

3. Arie Perliger and Daniel Milton, From Cradle to Grave: The Lifecycle of Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, November 2016), 48, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Cradle-to-Grave.pdf.

4. Perliger and Milton, “From Cradle to Grave,” 48.

5. “Afghan Arabs” refers to foreign volunteers fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, who faced mortality rates between 2 and 6 percent. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 63.

6. Perliger and Milton, “From Cradle to Grave,” 48.

7. “Remarks by Lisa O. Monaco at the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin,” Lawfare, April 8, 2016, https://www.lawfareblog.com/lisa-monaco-speech-university-texas.

8. Jasminder Singh, “The Emir of Katibah Nusantara: Bahrumsyah,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis 8, no. 11 (November 2016), 6, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CTTA-November-2016.pdf; and Hegghammer, “The Future of Jihadism in Europe,” 161.