New look at foreign fighters in Iraq

An analysis shows that the bulk of them come from countries allied with the US.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Little has been known about so-called foreign fighters in Iraq, other than that they are typically motivated by ideology and are usually smuggled in through Syria in small numbers. Many perform suicide bombing missions and instigate some of the country's starkest violence.

But a new analysis published last month by experts at West Point shows that most of these individuals come from Saudi Arabia and Libya, as well as other North African countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The analysis suggests that the bulk of foreign fighters originate from countries with whom the United States is allied – Saudi Arabia, for one – and also offers clues as to how American officials can stem the flow of these terrorists.

The report, which is based on data compiled by Al Qaeda and captured by coalition forces last fall, shows that the most violent acts in Iraq are typically carried out by foreign fighters. Their goals sometimes align with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, which, estimates suggest, has between 5,000 and 8,000 people associated with it. The foreign fighters, however, represent just a small fraction of that group.

Recommended: Five guidelines for US role in Syria

"We don't mean to imply that the bulk of the organization is foreign," says Lt. Col. Joseph Felter, who co-wrote the analysis for the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "But what you can take away from this is that it seems very likely that the vast majority of the suicide bombers do seem to be committed by non-Iraqis."

The US military discovered documents and computer data that belonged to Al Qaeda after conducting a raid in Sinjar, which is along the Syrian border in western Iraq and was thought to be an entry point for many of Iraq's foreign fighters. The documents and computer data offered a unique look at the flow of foreign fighters.

US military officials note that they don't know precisely how many foreign fighters are in Iraq; even this report does not indicate one way or another. Some accounts have suggested that the number is no more than a few hundred at any one time.

But while the total number is unknown, US military officials have determined that the fighters' flow into Iraq is decreasing – from as many as 110 per month in the first half of 2007 to about 40 per month this past fall.

Although it remains unclear the degree to which Shiite-dominant Iran is influencing the violence in Iraq, the analysis indicates that most of the foreign intervention is Sunni-based, which includes Al Qaeda.

The more than 750 personnel records obtained at the raid site showed that Saudi Arabia was the country of origin for 41 percent of the records analyzed, or 244 fighters. Libya was the source for 18 percent, or 112 of the fighters. Syria, Yemen, and Algeria were the next most common, according to the 29-page report, titled "Al-Qaida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records."

One of the only other analyses of foreign fighters, conducted in 2005 by an Israeli researcher, did not indicate nearly as many fighters being recruited from North Africa. The revelation that more are from North Africa comes as the US Defense Department sets up a new combatant command in Africa that aims to help African nations make themselves less hospitable to foreign terrorists.

The Sinjar analysis also offers clues about how the fighters get to Iraq: Most come through Syria, and the fighters, depending upon their nationality, use fairly predictable routes to Syria.

For example, fighters from Libya tend to go through Egypt and then Syria. Tunisians typically travel through Germany and then Turkey to Syria.

Armed with this knowledge, the US and its allies can attempt to break those "logistical chains" before the fighters even get to Syria.

"There seem to be very established routes," says Brian Fishman, the other co-author of the analysis. "That suggests that there are clear logistics networks based on nationalities to get people there. We need to break those logistics chains not only to Syria, but all the way in Syria."

Any analysis of foreign fighters in Iraq is accompanied by much skepticism since no accounting, even using data obtained from terrorist networks, rarely offers a transparent look at who is behind the violence in Iraq. Lieutenant Colonel Felter and Mr. Fishman acknowledge that the data is only a snapshot.

Such pictures of those entering Iraq only provide insights into that particular group of people and aren't usually representative, says Anthony Cordesman, a senior expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

"We have a very rough idea of people moving through Syria," he says. "These numbers are extremely rough, and there is no real way to know who is an Iraqi and who is not an Iraqi."

Meanwhile, the dynamics of the violence in Iraq have changed as the security situation has improved. Overall, violence is down. Whereas as many as 1,600 attacks were taking place across the country per week in June, there are now fewer than 600 attacks per week, says Col. Donald Bacon, a spokesman for the US military in Baghdad.

Yet as security has improved, it has forced insurgents and foreign fighters to change the way they operate.

Foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria typically came through Anbar Province, but as security there has improved – attacks there are down 90 percent from earlier this year – those fighters have had to move their routes farther north, say military officials. As a result, declines in violence have been far more gradual in the American military sector known as Multi-National Division-North, which includes Mosul and Diyala.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.




eZ debug

Clear cache:

Quick settings:

Timing: Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Script start
Timing: Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Module start 'content'
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: path in /var/www/ on line 158
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: path in /var/www/ on line 175
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: path in /var/www/ on line 158
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: path in /var/www/ on line 175
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: meta_class_identifier_ms in /var/www/ on line 111
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: meta_class_identifier_ms in /var/www/ on line 111
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: meta_class_identifier_ms in /var/www/ on line 111
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: meta_class_identifier_ms in /var/www/ on line 111
Notice: PHP: E_NOTICE Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Undefined index: meta_remote_id_ms in /var/www/ on line 1028
Warning: eZTemplate:def @ extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/templates/content/datatype/view/ezbyline.tpl:10[1] Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Variable 'story_source' is already defined.
Timing: Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Module end 'content'
Timing: Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Before parse_includes
Strict: PHP: E_STRICT Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Non-static method MugoViewExtras::get_view_extras() should not be called statically, assuming $this from incompatible context in /var/www/ on line 37
Warning: eZTemplate:def @ extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/override/templates/extra/archive.tpl:21[1] Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
Variable 'view_extra_node' is already defined.
Timing: Jul 09 2014 11:39:53
After parse_includes
Timing: Jul 09 2014 11:39:53

Timing points:

CheckpointElapsedRel. ElapsedMemoryRel. Memory
Script start 0.0000 sec0.0129 sec 1,285.6406 KB1,162.1563 KB
Module start 'content' 0.0129 sec1.7045 sec 2,447.7969 KB11,848.7109 KB
Module end 'content' 1.7174 sec0.0168 sec 14,296.5078 KB395.8906 KB
Before parse_includes 1.7342 sec0.0437 sec 14,692.3984 KB276.6406 KB
After parse_includes 1.7779 sec0.0008 sec 14,969.0391 KB-183.3672 KB
End 1.7787 sec  14,785.6719 KB 
Total runtime:1.7843 sec
Peak memory usage:21,061.1953 KB

Time accumulators:

 Accumulator Elapsed Percent Count Average
Load cache0.0066 sec0.3705%360.0002 sec
Mysql Total
Mysqli_queries0.1741 sec9.7478%2380.0007 sec
Looping result0.0548 sec3.0674%2320.0002 sec
Template Total1.7335 sec 97.0% 8 0.2167 sec
Template load0.0068 sec0.3794%80.0008 sec
Template processing1.7265 sec96.6449%80.2158 sec
Template load and register function0.0003 sec0.0164%40.0001 sec
state_id_array0.0101 sec0.5645%180.0006 sec
state_identifier_array0.0147 sec0.8254%260.0006 sec
Cache load0.0064 sec0.3592%1210.0001 sec
eZ Find
Search0.0890 sec4.9833%10.0890 sec
Query build0.0791 sec4.4262%10.0791 sec
Class attribute list0.0733 sec4.1036%10.0733 sec
Engine time0.0077 sec0.4316%10.0077 sec
MoreLikeThis0.0000 sec0.0000%00.0000 sec
Sytem overhead
Fetch class attribute name0.0014 sec0.0773%70.0002 sec
Fetch class attribute can translate value0.0019 sec0.1054%30.0006 sec
Instantiating content class attribute0.0001 sec0.0047%80.0000 sec
Image XML parsing0.0036 sec0.2027%30.0012 sec
String conversion0.0000 sec0.0008%30.0000 sec
dbfile0.0013 sec0.0703%360.0000 sec
View Extra building0.0100 sec0.5593%40.0025 sec
Total script time:1.7864 sec

CSS/JS files loaded with "ezjscPacker" during request:


Templates used to render the page:

UsageRequested templateTemplateTemplate loadedEditOverride
1node/view/full.tplfull/article.tplextension/csm_base/design/csm_design/override/templates/full/article.tplEdit templateOverride template
28content/datatype/view/ezxmltags/paragraph.tpl<No override>extension/ezwebin/design/ezwebin/templates/content/datatype/view/ezxmltags/paragraph.tplEdit templateOverride template
1content/datatype/view/ezimage.tpl<No override>extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/templates/content/datatype/view/ezimage.tplEdit templateOverride template
2content/datatype/view/ezstring.tpl<No override>design/standard/templates/content/datatype/view/ezstring.tplEdit templateOverride template
26content/datatype/view/ezxmltags/link.tpl<No override>extension/csm_base/design/standard/templates/content/datatype/view/ezxmltags/link.tplEdit templateOverride template
1content/datatype/view/ezxmltext.tpl<No override>design/standard/templates/content/datatype/view/ezxmltext.tplEdit templateOverride template
1content/datatype/view/ezbyline.tpl<No override>extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/templates/content/datatype/view/ezbyline.tplEdit templateOverride template
1content/datatype/view/ezxmltext.tplcontent/datatype/view/story_info_box.tplextension/csm_base/design/csm_design/override/templates/content/datatype/view/story_info_box.tplEdit templateOverride template
1content/datatype/view/ezmatrix.tplcontent/datatype/view/ezmatrix_article_related_external_links.tplextension/csm_base/design/csm_design/override/templates/content/datatype/view/ezmatrix_article_related_external_links.tplEdit templateOverride template
1pagelayout.tpl<No override>extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/templates/pagelayout.tplEdit templateOverride template
1modules/mugo_view_extras/extra_cached.tpl<No override>extension/mugo_view_extras/design/standard/templates/modules/mugo_view_extras/extra_cached.tplEdit templateOverride template
1setup/debug_toolbar.tpl<No override>design/standard/templates/setup/debug_toolbar.tplEdit templateOverride template
 Number of times templates used: 65
 Number of unique templates used: 12
 Time used to render template usage: 0.0003 secs