New look at foreign fighters in Iraq
An analysis shows that the bulk of them come from countries allied with the US.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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."