As turmoil breaks out in Iraq two and a half years after U.S. troops left the country, are Westerners — including Americans — flocking there to help extremists in the fight?
That’s a case made by Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Committee on Intelligence, during a June 15, 2014 appearance On Fox News Sunday.
Rogers had this exchange with host Chris Wallace.
Rogers: "This is as dangerous as it gets. Why? We have thousands of Westerners and Americans in both the eastern Syria and Iraq who have Western passports. This is like —"
Wallace: "You're talking about members of ISIS?"
Rogers: "Well, they're showing up to fight extremists, and so some are —"
Wallace: "With the extremists?"
Rogers: "They're fighting with Al-Nusra in Syria or ISIS, and they will go with winners. So, this is what's so dangerous."
Rogers went on to note that the first case of an American suicide bomber in Syria occured in May.
It sounded to us like Rogers claimed there are thousands of Westerners and Americans in Syria and Iraq fighting with extremists. His office confirmed that’s what he meant.
It’s an alarming statistic, and one we decided to verify.
The movement of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria to join the fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime was listed as a "Key Terrorism Trend of 2013" on the State Department’s annual terrorism report. Many of them in recent weeks have since moved into Iraq, where groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have now taken a large swath of the country.
Experts told us that conflicts in Muslim and Arab countries have often drawn fighters from across the world, including the Afghan-Soviet War and the Bosnian War. But the conflict in Syria has seen an infusion of foreign fighters to a much greater degree than past conflicts, said Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.
"We’ve never seen anything on the scale or magnitude like this," Riedel said. "In the 1980s, a lot of the foreign volunteers went for relatively short period of time and it was more a photo-op than anything else. This time, they’re all fighting."
Those not familiar with the ongoing civil war in Syria might wonder why the United States would care that Westerners are joining the fight against Assad. Assad is a brutal dictator, and President Barack Obama has called on him to step down. While there are some moderate forces in Syria fighting to oust Assad, there are also other militant groups like ISIS, which have more extreme jihadist and anti-American views, as well as links to terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
Is it possible some of these foreign fighters are there to help more moderate forces defeat Assad?
Some are, Riedel said, but "the majority of foreign volunteers are ending up joining or working with extremist groups like ISIS. They’re gravitating to the most extreme groups."
Rogers’ office could not elaborate further on the number of Westerners fighting in those conflicts. Similarly, a spokesman for Rogers’ counterpart on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., confirmed that the committee was briefed that there were a large number of Westerners, and some Americans, fighting in Syria, but he could not provide exact figures.
Instead, we were directed to the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. In March, Director Matthew Olsen warned that a growing force of foreign fighters in Syria was becoming a major concern.
"European governments estimate that more than 1,000 Westerners have traveled to join the fight against the Assad regime," Olsen said. "Dozens of Americans from a variety of backgrounds and locations in the United States have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria but to date we have not identified an organized recruitment effort targeting Americans."
So, 1,000 is not "thousands." But perhaps other estimates are higher.
The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London has studied this issue extensively, collecting information from 1,500 sources to put together a tally.
As of December 2013, the center estimated there were upto 11,000 individuals from 74 countries in Syria — nearly double its April 2013 estimate. Between 600 and 1,900 of those are from Western Europe. Additionally, about 32 to 305 fighters hail from Australia and Canada. Foreign fighters from the United States made up a small piece, between 17 and 60.
The number has grown since December, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, so the high-end estimates are well past 2,000 at this point. For example, French officials recently said they believe more than 700 of their residents have joined the conflict. The December estimate from King’s College London said 412 was the high figure.
So it is quite possible between 2,000 and 3,000 foreign fighters from Western countries have entered Syria and Iraq, said Riedel, who has also studied these figures.
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, took issue with Rogers’ statement because even high end estimates make "thousands" a stretch.
It’s also worth noting that the estimates don’t factor in whether foreign fighters left the fight, returned or died, only that they were there at some point in the last three years. That’s not clear from Rogers’ statement.
"I would say that most convincing analyses hold that there are indeed thousands of foreign fighters in Syria of whom about 2,000 are thought to be from Western countries," said Hoffman, who was an adviser to the Iraq Study Group.
National security officials in the United States and with its allies are especially concerned about this trend. In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress, "We’re seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts."
This scenario has apparently already been realized in Brussels, Belgium, the site of a deadly shooting at a Jewish museum. French authorities have arrested a suspect, a 29-year-old Frenchman who allegedly carried out the shooting after fighting with Islamist rebels in Syria.
So the threat is certainly real, particularly in Europe, Gartenstein-Ross said, where travel to and from the Middle East is logistically easier.
Rogers said there are "thousands of Westerners and Americans in both the eastern Syria and Iraq who have Western passports" fighting with extremists. The highest estimates put the figure between 2,000 and 3,000, which would make it technically accurate, but somewhat exaggerated, to say "thousands." A March estimate from the U.S. government said there were about 1,000 Westerners in Syria. Only a few dozen of them are from the United States, though, and you might not get that impression from Rogers’ comment.
So Rogers may have amplified the numbers a bit, but he did not overstate the threat. Experts we spoke with, along with U.S. and Western governments, have expressed legitimate concerns about this issue. Therefore, we rate Rogers’ statement Mostly True.