ISIS Attracts Foreign Fighters From Across The Globe: Where Do They Come From, And Why?

Photo courtesy of Menendj via Wikimedia Commons

The Islamic State (ISIS) has recruited jihadist fighters from all over the world, including hundreds from Western countries like the United States, England, and France.

According to intelligence experts, the number of Western foreigners venturing to Syria and Iraq, where they are militarized and radicalized, surged from hundreds to as many as 3,000.

Countries of origin

According to a report (pdf) by the intelligence organization Soufan Group, fighters from at least 81 countries have traveled to Syria since its three year conflict began. 25 of these countries provided official figures while others provided estimates or were unwilling/unaware of residents having left.

Official estimates are represented in the map below.


In regards to Western numbers, there have been an estimated 1200 recruits from France, 600 from the UK, 500-600 from Germany, 440 from Belgium, 250 from Australia, 200-250 from the Netherlands, 100 each from Canada and the United States.

Many of these foreigners traveled to join rebel forces in the fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whom President Obama and other world leaders oppose. Authorities estimate that as many as 80 percent of foreign volunteers then gravitated toward extremist groups, ISIS in particular.

Profiles and motivations

According to the Soufan report, foreigners that travel to the Middle East to fight are young men, typically aged 18-29, some as young as 15. Western women have even joined with spouses, or come alone to become jihadi brides.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”0WckSW2D36lWCBY3tJ7KexoIhYc1BXX2″]Western recruits are Islamic, often second or third generation immigrants, though very few have prior connections with Syria. About 6 percent of fighters from the EU were converts.

Few Western members come with fighting experience or military training.

What drives these young people to uproot safe and stable lives in favor of radicalization? There is no one reason, just as there is no one type. Possible factors include:

  • Lack of identity: As outsiders in Western states, many young people are drawn by a desire for greater purpose and involvement, or pushed by feelings of isolation.
  • Sense of duty: Many truly believe in ISIS’ cause and hope to witness and participate in a battle prophesied 1,400 years ago.
  • Ignorance: Not all volunteers do so with complete knowledge: Several recruits were found to have purchased “Islam For Dummies” before leaving to join the conflict.
  • Glory: Wannabe jihadists have been described as “bored, under­employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men looking for power and thrill.
  • Social media: ISIS is millennial friendly and social media savvy, having produced recruitment videos in English and adopted Twitter and other platforms to portray themselves as warm, fun, welcoming, meaningful, and cat-friendly.

Issues on the home front 

Countries from which these young jihadists travel are grappling to prevent radicalization from spreading, with concern growing as well about the possibility of insider attacks if and when militants return home.

The trend highlights what could be a serious national security issue, and Western nations have no joint strategy to counter it. Already, a French jihadist returned home murdered four people in Jewish Museum, and several other attack plans were luckily foiled.

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult for intelligence agencies to accurately identify and track those that join ISIS.

Passports have been cancelled, deradicalization programs created, and mosque programs enacted to discourage youth from radical paths, none of which makes up for the untrackable thousands already gone. And there is no easy way, it seems, to reverse ISIS’ incredible, and sometimes lethal attraction.

Originally published on 9/4/2014, updated to reflect new numbers.

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Jennifer Markert