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.
"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.
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.