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The Islamic State: Foreign Fighters

Foreign Fighters

Islamic State recruitment slowed during 2016, as a result of the increasing air campaign against the group led by the United States as well as financial hardships faced by fighters. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria slowed more than 90% between 2015 and 2016, dwindling from approximately 2,000 fighters per month on average in 2015, to 200 per month in 2016. The number of jihadists remained steady as the influx of foreign fighters continued, and in April 2016 it was estimated that over 20,000 foreign fighters were in Syria fighting for the Islamic State. These individuals most likely entered Syria through it's porous and poorly patrolled border with Turkey.  Most of the foreign fighters came from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Russia and France.  

There are an estimated 300 American citizens who are fighting with various groups against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, according to the U.S. Congressional research Service. These American “volunteers” are from 31 states, with an overwhelming majority of them hailing from Texas. Over half of these individuals (68%) had served in the U.S. armed forces in some capacity. To read the Bellingcat investigative report into Americans fighting against the Islamic State, please click here.

As the size and strength of the Islamic State shrank during 2016 and early 2017 thanks to the U.S.-backed coalition, the group pivoted to focus on attacks outside of it's principal territory and began to encourage members to carry out attacks in their home countries.  The Islamic State group has several facilitators in place that assist the flow of fighters to Europe, according to U.S. officials in June 2017.  In addition, the officials stated that there is always a possibility that a foreign fighter from a visa waiver country that has not been detected could return home to fly to the U.S. and conduct an attack.  (FreeBeacon, June 21, 2017)

Many foreign Islamic State fighters returned to their countries of origin after training in Iraq and Syria, and joined what are considered “sleeper cells.” These cells, like the groups that carried out the 2015 Paris attacks or 2016 Brussels airport and train station bombings, are small, secretive, technogically savvy, and intelligent. U.S. intelligence services and their peers are investigating evidence of ISIS cells in Germany, England, Italy, and various other European countries.

The U.S.-based think tank The Soufan Center released a report in October 2017, concluding that approximately 5,600 foreign ISIS fighters had returned home to 33 countries.  


Turkish government reports and officials show the Islamic State is getting a steady stream of fighters coming from inside of Turkey.  According to Turkish media over 1,000 Turkish citizens fled Turkey and joined IS.  Most of these citizens represent dissafected youths drawn to the organization's radical extreme ideology and promises of $150 pay per day.  The Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages on September 20 who they had abducted in Mosul from the Turkish consulate there on June 11.  The hostages were not rescued, they were released, and were taken to the Turkish capital Ankara immediately following their release.  Turkish government officials have repeatedly denied that they paid any money for the release, and claim that they only used a strategy developed by their intelligence community to secure the hostages.  The fact that they paid nothing for the hostages is unlikely, as ISIS makes most of it's money from exploitative measures such as collecting ransoms or imposing undue taxes.  On October 13 Turkish police forces found a massive stockpile of weapons and explosive vests in the Turkish province of Gazientep, allegedly stored there by Islamic State members.  According to Turkish officials, during the raid police seized 150 kilograms of C4 explosives, 20 vests for suicide attacks, and a number of guns and bullets.  They believe the amount of explosives siezed was enough to destroy a small city. On November 22 Turkish President Erdogan met with US Vice President Joe Biden in Istanbul for discussions about the danger posed by the Islamic State and their mutual interest in defeating the militants.  The two leaders met for four hours and although there were no firm mutual agreements made, according to officials the two countries were moving toward increased cooperation in the fight to defeat ISIS.  The following day it was reported that Turkish and US officials had put aside their differences and were going to begin to work together in the fight against the Islamic State.  The two countries have agreed to mutually arm and train opposition fighters in Syria, with Turkish soldiers providing on-the-ground training for fighters in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and US forces providing equipment and logistical support. Turkey and the US will arm and train about 2,000 FSA fighters at the Hirfanli gendarmerie training camp in Anatolia.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced during a press conference on September 7, 2015, that two British jihadis in Syria fighting for the Islamic State had been killed by a drone strike during the previous days. This represented a significant change for the United Kingdom, which had previously only been involved in ISIS bombing missions in Iraq. Cameron staged the press conference to clarify that the strike was necessary and justified.

For the first time since the fight against the Islamic State began, in September 2015 the United Nations placed international sanctions on four British individuals known to be fighting for ISIS. The individuals were known to be online recruiters for ISIS, and these sanctions included travel bans and seizure of assets.

German-born hip-hop artist Denis Cuspert, who recorded under the name “Deso Dogg,” and joined the Islamic State in 2012, was killed during an air strike on October 16, 2015. Cuspert was a prominent recruiter for the Islamic State, using his multilingual skills to lure potential jihadis to Syria from all over the globe. He starred in many Islamic State propaganda videos because he spoke English relatively well.

Spanish and Moroccan police arrested ten people suspected of engaging in recruitment activities for the Islamic State in October 2015. Spain's interior ministry clarified following the arrests of these individuals that they had belonged to a network that recruited and indoctrinated foreigners to fight for ISIS. According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, Spanish authorities were involved in the arrest of 71 suspected Islamic State militants and recruiters between January and October 2015.

European security officials told news organizations on March 23, 2016, that they believe the Islamic State had trained approximately 400 fighters and sent them back to Europe to carry out attacks.

The United States entered discussions with Turkey about providing them with Aerostat technology, unmanned aerial vehicles, and anti-tunneling technology to better secure their border with Syria in late 2015 and early 2016.

Islamic State jihadis killed eight of their own Dutch fighters in early February 2016, after they were accused of attempted desertion and mutiny. During the first months of 2016 tensions rose between Dutch Islamic State fighters and their peers, after a Dutch fighter was beaten to death during an interrogation. Islamic State leaders in Raqqa sent an emissary to quell the dispute, but the Dutch fighters murdered the messenger and were subsequently arrested and executed. The Dutch Secret Service maintains that approximately 200 individiauls from the Netherlands have travelled to join ISIS.

A group of militants identifying with the Islamic State were arrested in Gaziantep, Turkey, during late March 2016. The six individuals divulged to police that an “imminent” attack was being planned against Istanbul's Synagogue in Beyoglu, which has a school and community center attached. Turkish police confirmed that this was more than a credible threat, it was an active plot. To address the threat Turkish police increased security at the Synagogue as well as other Jewish establishments.

French authorities announced the arrest of 34-year old suspect Reda Kriket on March 30, 2016, who they believed to have been planning an “imminent attack.” Upon raiding Kriket's fourth-floor apartment, which had been rented under a false name, French police found a trove of Kalashnikov assault rifles, submachine guns, pistols, ammunition, explosives similar to the ones used in the attacks on Paris and Brussels, stolen passports, tear gas canisters, instructions on how to make explosives, and brand new “burner” cell phones. Kriket was charged in a French court with terrorist conspiracy, possession of weapons and explosives, and falsification of documents, as well as multiple other offenses. He is believed to have visited Syria with a friend sometime in late 2014 or early 2015, and has an extensive criminal record including charges in Belgium for financing jihadist recruitment networks.

According to German news outlets, 29 former soldiers from the German army had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS as of April 2016. Since 2007 German intelligence services have investigated 320 active duty and former soldiers for ties to jihadist organizations.

British-born ISIS recruiter Abu Qaqa al-Britani (real name Raphael Hostey), was killed in a drone strike in Syria during late April 2016. Hostey had travelled to Syria to join ISIS in 2013, and quickly became one of the organization's most prolific recruiters. Born in Manchester, United Kingdom, Hostey studied graphic design at John Moores University in Liverpool, leading experts to believe that he may have played a part in producing some of the Islamic State's highly effective propaganda.

British authorities estimate that 850 British individuals travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS during the course of the conflict.  Of those, they believe that 250 have returned to the United Kingdom.  

German intelligence and security services believe that at least 950 German citizens are currently in the Middle East fighting for ISIS, according to a report released by the German Office of the Protection of the Constitution in October 2017.  A quarter of these individuals are women and children. 

The Middle East/North Africa

The Islamic State militants called on their counterparts in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on September 22, 2014 to rise up against Egyptian security forces.  ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani encouraged the militants to "Attack their bases.  Raid their homes.  Cut off their heads". He also encouraged Islamic State supporters to kill members of any country involved in the US led coalition to stop their brutality. On November 4, 2014, Egypt's most active terrorist organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis swore allegiance to the Islamic State.  According to a statement released by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis leader, "After entrusting God we decided to swear allegiance to the emir of the faithful Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the Muslims in Syria and Iraq and in other countries".  The group terrorized the Sinai Peninsula in late 2014, carrying out a spate of attacks that killed 33 Egyptian security personnel and causing the Egyptian government to declare a state of emergency in parts of Northern Sinai. 

Israeli police have said that they will be cracking down hard on any public show of solidarity with or support for the Islamic State. This includes on social media and in public places.  Israeli police chief Yohanan Danino stated that youth these days are not only affected by what they physically see and experience, but also what they see and are exposed to on the internet.  Because of this, Israeli police began a social media monitoring campaign aimed at quelling Islamic State support within Israel's borders.  The Islamic State has found some supporters in the Gaza Strip, and during the week of December 1 threatening pamphlets with Islamic State symbols began appearing in Gaza, as well as an increased number of Islamic State stickers on cars and flags flying from homes and businesses.  These pamphlets threaten Palestinian poets, musicians, and writers; one of them reads ""We warn the writers and poets of their wanton sayings and atheist deeds.  We give the apostates three days to retract their apostasy and wantonness and enter the religion of Islam anew."  These pamphlets created panic in the Gaza Strip because they mention the targetted individuals by full name. Threats were also included against Palestinian women in general, providing an ultimatum that the women abide by the style of attire approved by the Islamic State or face Sharia punishment.  Palestinian political analyst Naji Sharab stated that "there is no denying that Islamic State exists in the Gaza Strip as a small group or as individuals."  In addition to these flyers, stickers, and flags, Palestinian individuals have also begun sending out wedding invitations featuring the iconic Islamic State flag and emblem. 

Although groups like Hamas and Fatah have continued to deny it, The Islamic State has begun to take a foothold in the Palestinian territories. Israeli security sources claim that in late 2014 and early 2015 hundreds of Hamas and Fatah supporters have defected to the Islamic State.  Following the attack on the satirical French news magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, thousands of supporters of the Islamic State crowded the streets of Gaza in protest of the publishing of images of Mohammed by the magazine, and in support of the violent attack that left twelve people dead.  Similar demonstrations took place in Ramallah and Hebron.  These protestors attempted to storm the the office of the French Cultural Center in Gaza, and burned French flags while chanting calls for the slaughter of French nationals. Palestinian security forces were dispatched to the protest area, where they arrested seven Islamic State supporters.  Palestinian security forces have arrested in total fifteen supporters of the Islamic State, and have been fighting the rise of the Islamic State along with Israeli security forces.  It was revealed on January 18 2015 that a number of would-be jihadists "training" to join the Islamic State had been arrested in November and December in Galilee, Northern Israel.  The seven Arab Israeli citizens were apprehended by Israeli security forces after apparently participating in "training" sessions during which they slaughtered sheep, practiced riding horses, learned how to properly make and hurl a molotov cocktail, and participated in target shooting activities. The individuals arrested included Adnan Ala al-Din, a 40 year old prominent lawyer from Nazareth, and brothers who had had issues with Israeli security forces in the past. Ala al-Din presented himself to the security forces as the Senior Commander of the Islamic State in Palestine at the time of his arrest. 

Turkey pledged to join the coalition fight against the Islamic State in July 2015, allowing U.S. forces to use their facilities and launch strikes against ISIS from Turkish military installations. In addition, the Turkish military intensified border security to help stifle the flow of Jihadists into Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated on August 3, 2015 that, ”There is no place [for the Islamic State] on Turkey’s borders. This is not the Turkey of just one week ago”(Washington Post, August 1, 2015).

Israeli security forces arrested seven individuals in September 2015, three of whom were later charged with communicating with the Islamic State and plotting to carry out an ISIS sponsored attack in Israel. The individuals were arab-Israeli citizens who allegedly gathered information about IDF outposts, and were encouraged to carry out attacks by ISIS members who they were in contact with.

The Israeli Shin Bet security service estimated in January 2016 that 50 Israeli Arabs had travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight for ISIS.

Pentagon officials estimated that there were between 5,000 and 6,500 ISIS fighters in Libya as of early February 2016, more than twice the estimate released in Fall 2015. Dozens of top Islamic State leaders from Syria were sent to Libya to keep them out of the way of airstrikes, and to help train Libyan ISIS fighters. President Obama faced pressure to engage the Islamic State in Libya at the begining of his last year in office, but the President was reluctant to do so.

ISIS affiliates in Libya took over the security headquarters in the city of Sabratha on February 23, 2016, beheading 12 security officers before being beat back by government forces. The militants struck as the Libyan army was busy conducting raids in other parts of the city, and occupied the government building for approximately 3 hours.

Members of the Hamas militant group crossed the border to Egypt and began fighting along side the Islamic State in Sinai during late 2015 and early 2016, according to Egyptian officials. The Hamas members arrived in small groups, via the last secretive tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai.

An Israeli-Arab who grew up in Umm al-Fahm, Haifa, was killed in battle fighting for the Islamic State in March 2016. 28-year old Khalil Saleh was killed in Syria, where he had been living for three years, during a U.S. bombing run against ISIS targets. Saleh is one of seven Israeli-Arabs believed to have been killed fighting for the Islamic State.

Four Arab residents of East Jerusalem were indicted in late-March 2016, accused of attempting to join the Islamic State in Syria. The group met several times per week to study Islam and watch ISIS videos, and were allegedly planning to carry out terror attacks at embassies and consulates in Jerusalem. All members of the group were aged 20-25, and two of the four had attempted to cross into Syria previously.

Over the course of 2015, the number of ISIS affiliated militants in Libya took a dramatic rise. Pentagon security officials estimated in April 2016 that there were currently 4,000 fighters linked with ISIS in Libya, almost twice the estimate released at the begining of 2015.

Two Israeli Arab brothers from the Umm al-Fahm neighborhood were arrested and indicted for supporting the Islamic State in August 2017.  A search of the brother's residence conducted by the Shin Bet security agency and Israeli Police uncovered a gun, and photos and videos of ISIS propaganda.  The brothers had been in contact with an ISIS recruiter in Syria, who was a former resident of their village.  Charges levied against the two included contact with a foreign agent and illegal possession of a firearm.  

Israel's Interior Ministry announced in late August 2017 that they had revoked the citizenship of 20 Israelis who had travelled to fight for the Islamic State.  


Two U.S. think-tanks in July 2016 provided evidence following analysis of leaked ISIS registration forms that approximately 100 Chinese nationals had travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State. Most of these fighters came from the Northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where there is a significant Muslim Uighur population. Eight of these recruits listed their age as younger than 16, and one recruit was an 80-year old Uighur man.


The Russian province of Dagestan in the North Caucasus has been a hotbed for Islamic State recruiters, with hundreds of fighters being funneled into Syria every month according to reports from the Associated Press. High levels of unemployment, corruption, and poverty made citizens of Dagestan ideal candidates for extremists looking to bring fighters back to Iraq and Syria. The Caucasus region experienced a drop in violent crime and terror attacks during 2014-2015, thanks to these unstable individuals leaving the country and fleeing to fight for the Islamic State. Russian police estimated as of October 2015 that of the approximately 2,500 Russians fighting in Syria and Iraq for ISIS, 700 were recruited from Dagestan.

A Reuters investigation published in May 2016 provided a look into how some Russian fighters wound up in Syria fighting for ISIS. Prior to the 2014 winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia, Russian security services contacted wanted terrorists, criminals and known jihadi sympathizers, and offered to ship them to other countries. Reuters reported that at least five Russian radicals were contacted by the Russian government, given new names and new passports, and flown on one-way tickets to places such as Turkey. From there, the radicals easily crossed borders and travelled to the lawless areas of Syria and Iraq to join groups who would eventually pledge their loyalty to the ISIS jihadi organization. These five individuals however represent only a small number of the estimated 2,900 Russians who have left to fight in Iraq and Syria. These individuals were sent away because Russia wished to mitigate the risk of terror attacks during the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Russian officials confirmed that this project began in 2012 and was active leading up to the Olympics in 2014. According to Alexander Bortinikov, Director of the Russian Security Service, “Before the Olympics, Russian authorities didn't prevent departures and a big number of fighters left Russia. There was a very specific short-term task to ensure security of the Olympics... They turned a blind eye on the flow of radical youth.” (Reuters, May 13, 2016)

The U.S. 

Two young Muslim men from Brooklyn were arrested for plotting to go to Syria to join the Islamic State on February 24, 2015.  19 year old Akhror Saidakhmetov and his 24 year old friend and roomate Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev worked meagar jobs in New York City to make ends meet, and were radicalized online through Islamic State sympathizers.  Wearing Western attire and having normal 9-5 jobs working at a sandwich shop and repairing cell phones, the pair did not draw attention to themselves in public.  They spent countless hours online in their apartment belonging to the parents of Saidakhmetov and became enamored with the Islamic State, often posting sympathetic messages on websites supportive of the actions of ISIS.  On August 8, Juraboev posted on a group stating that he would even attack President Barack Obama if asked, and pondered “Is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here?”  These posts grabbed the attention of federal agents, who met with Juraboev.  During their interview Juraboev repeated his claim that he would kill President Obama if prompted to do so by the Islamic State.  Despite this, federal agents chose not to meet with Juraboev again and instead resolved to monitor him and the people he associated with.  Even while Juraboev knew he was being watched, he still continued to visit and post on websites sympathetic to the Islamic State and their activities.  In order to carry out their plan to go to Syria, Saidakhmetov needed to attain his passport, which was in his mother's posession.  In a phone call recorded by federal agents on February 19, 2015, he asked his mother for his passport, to which she replied asking him where he was plannng to go.  Saidakhmetov stated confidently that he was going to join the Islamic State.  A government informant who had been in touch with both young men helped them secure travel documents, although it is unclear whether Saidakhmetov did get his passport from his mother or not.  Federal agents were waiting for Saidakhmetov on February 24, 2015, at Kennedy International Airport, where they made their arrest.  Juraboev was arrested the same morning in their shared apartment.  A third man, 30 year old Abror Habibov, was arrested simultaneously in Florida, accused of helping the two young men finance and plan their escape to Syria.  This case marked the first time charges have been brought against someone in New York City for plotting to travel overseas to to fight for a terrorist organization. 

In the first case of it's kind, on March 17, 2015, a Federal grand jury in New York indicted a U.S. military veteran on charges that he was conspiring to join the Islamic State. Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, a 47 year old mechanic and U.S. Air Force veteran, had been fired from his job as an airplane mechanic in Kuwait in December 2014 and then travelled to Egypt. From Egypt he attempted to cross the border into Syria, but was sent back to Egypt and from there sent back to the United States. Upon his return to the U.S. on January 16, 2015, Pugh was immediately arrested and his belongings searched. On his laptop, police officers found research into entry points between Syria and Turkey.

United States authorities reported that they arrested more than 10 individuals with ties to the Islamic State over the weekend of July 4, 2015. Counterterrorism experts warned of increased likelyhood of a terrorist attack in the weeks leading up to American Independence day celebrations. All of the individuals arrested reportedly were radicalized online and had not travelled to train with the Islamic State. U.S. officials stated that not all of those arrested may be charged with terrorism related crimes because not all had direct links to terror organizations or were involved in active terror plots.

U.S. Intelligence officials announced in February 2016 that they expected ISIS to attempt an attack on U.S. soil within a year. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart claimed in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9, 2016, that ISIS, “will probably attempt to conduct additional attacks in Europe, and attempt to direct attacks on the U.S. homeland in 2016” (CNN, February 10, 2016). At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted that ISIS and it's eight branches all over the Middle East and North Africa, were the number one terror threat facing the United States. This testimony followed the release of the 2016 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community;” to read the assessment, please click here.

U.S. citizen and resident of Rochester, New York, Mufid Elfgeeh, was sentenced to the longest jail term ever given to an individual accused of supporting the Islamic State on March 17, 2016. A U.S. District Court Judge in the Western District of New York sentenced 32-year old Elfgeeh to twenty-two and a half years in prison for attempting to recruit fighters to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Elfgeeh was caught after he conversed with FBI informants, telling them he wanted to kill U.S. soldiers as well as Shia Muslims. He attempted to convince the informants to go to the Middle East to fight for ISIS by purchasing them laptops, cameras, passports, and various other travel documents. More than 80 cases relating to ISIS activities have been brought to U.S. courts since 2013.

An American husband and wife who travelled to Syria to join and recruit for ISIS were killed in an air strike in early May 2016. The bodies of Abu Isa al-Amriki and Umm Isa al-Amriki were discovered inside their bombed-out home in Aleppo, and their deaths were confirmed on ISIS social media accounts.

An Iranian refugee who was resettled in Freeport, Maine, in 2009, was killed while fighting for the Islamic State in Lebanon during 2015. Adnan Fazeli was brought to the United States through Portland, Maine, at age 32 by Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services. On August 13, 2013, he boarded a plane to Turkey and never returned to his wife and children.

U.S. recruits to the Islamic State group struggled to adapt to the harsh lifestyle and were often assigned to menial jobs, according to a report by the George Washington University Program on Extremism released in February 2018.  American recruits experienced significant culture shock, issues with the weather, climate, and terrain, harsh living conditions, and a lack of social interaction with their peers.  Many were not experienced fighters, and were assigned cleaning, cooking, or medical duties.  The study claimed that approximately 300 Americans had made their way to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS or other terror groups, as opposed to the estimated 5,000-6,000 Europeans who had done the same.

South/Latin America

General John Kelly, the top U.S. General in South America, expressed concern about fighters travelling from South America, Latin America, and the Caribbean to fight for the Islamic State. Kelly said that at least 100 individuals from Jamacia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela, have travelled to the Middle East to join ISIS.

Approximately 100 men from the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS. These individuals often have an easier time slipping through the cracks of the system because their home countries do not have well-coordinated security and law enforcement. An unknown number of individuals have also travelled from the Maldives and Mauritius to join ISIS.


Australian counter-terror officials stated that between January and August 2015 they prevented 336 suspected jihadist individuals from travelling from Australia to join terrorist organizations.

Approximately 500 citizens of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, left the country to fight for ISIS according to Indonesian authorities.  The Indonesian government believes that there are at least 1,200 individuals in their country who support the Islamic State.  

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