How many Europeans have gone to Syria to fight?
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It’s been reported that thousands of foreign fighters have made their way to the Middle East to join Islamist militant groups – so-called Islamic State, and others. But how reliable are the figures and how many of the people who went are still there now?
The decision to go to war in a country far from home is not a new phenomenon – in the 1930s about 30,000 foreigners fought in the Spanish Civil War, and the early 19th Century the British poet, Lord Byron, fought for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.
In recent times many went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia. But the numbers travelling to Syria now represent “the largest foreign fighter mobilisation of Islamist foreign fighters in history” says Thomas Hegghammer, a director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.
There are several reasons for this, he suggests.
Syria is easier to get to than previous conflicts – people have been able to travel to Turkey and cross the border without any difficulty. And once inside Syria, there are areas where the risks are limited. Because IS controls a large territory, foreigners can avoid front-line combat if they want to.
“In the early days of the war, the main declared motivation was, ‘I want to go and fight Assad to defend the Sunnis in Syria,’” says Hegghammer. “Now the most common declared motivation is, ‘I want to go and live in Islamic State, I want to live in the Caliphate.’
“You have people in Europe who sell all their belongings, they take their children out of school and move to Raqqa with the full intention of living there for the rest of their life.”
Interpol has identified 4,000 individuals who have travelled to join the militants. But many put the overall figure of identified and unidentified people, far higher.
The ICSR now estimates that 20,000 is closer to the truth, a figure it arrives at by monitoring media reports and other publicly available information.
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