- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Despite repeated Syrian government claims that opposition forces are predominantly "foreign terrorists," a new comprehensive report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation finally puts numbers to the nagging question of just how many foreign fighters exist in Syria. The short answer: Not many. The long answer: Not many, but it depends on how generous you want to be.
ICSR’s most liberal estimate for the total number of foreign fighters over the course of the two-year conflict is 5,500, while the most conservative estimate for the current size of rebel forces is 60,000. If you crunch the numbers, that means foreigners make up less than 10 percent of the total rebellion and "the actual figure is likely to be lower," says the group, which is a partnership of King’s College London, the University of Pennsylvania, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy, and Georgetown University. We graphed the data below:
According to the report’s methodology, the "estimate is based on more than 450 sources in the Western and Arab media as well as the martyrdom notices that have been posted in jihadist online forums. As with previous conflicts, the picture is far from complete and will probably remain so for years to come. There is no ‘true census’ of foreign fighters, and publicly available sources are inevitably incomplete."
The report does not tally the number of Americans fighting abroad, but you can bet the number is much smaller given the geographic barriers to entry. The most prominent American that fought in the opposition, Phoenix native Eric Harroun, has been charged with "conspiring to use a destructive device outside the United States," which carries up to a lifetime prison sentence. Those in the United States who view that charge as heavy-handed might agree with a finding in the report: Not all jihadist groups are linked to al Qaeda and not everyone who joins a jihadist group is motivated by the jihadist worldview.
"The most commonly cited reasons for joining rebel forces are the horrific images of the conflict, stories about atrocities committed by government forces, and the perceived lack of support from Western and Arab countries," reads the report. "In many cases, these individuals fully adopt the jihadist doctrine and ideology only when they are on the ground and in contact with hardened fighters." Sounds like a good report for Harroun’s lawyers to keep on hand.