How Many ISIS Jihadis in America?

ISIS Jihadis Returning
Photograph by Bram Janssen / AP, via the New Yorker

A recent edition of the New Yorker tackled the problem of ISIS fighters returning to their home countries. Given the controversies in the US about Muslim bans and extreme vetting, it is interesting to note other nations have it much worse:

A new report, to be released Tuesday by the Soufan Group and the Global Strategy Network, details some of the answers: At least fifty-six hundred people from thirty-three countries have already gone home—and most countries don’t yet have a head count.

On average, twenty to thirty per cent of the foreign fighters from Europe have already returned there—though it’s fifty per cent in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Thousands more who fought for ISIS are stuck near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq, and are believed to be trying to get back to their home countries.

Dozens of governments face similar challenges. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that ten per cent of the more than nine thousand foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics who went to Syria or Iraq have come home. (In private, other Russians have given me higher numbers.)

The report, titled “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees,” notes that countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, and in North Africa, such as Libya, are particularly vulnerable.

Here are some more numbers, concluding with America:

Over all, since 2011, more than forty thousand people, from more than a hundred and ten countries, travelled to join ISIS—in addition to the local Syrians and Iraqis who became fighters. Among these jihadis were seventy-four hundred from the West—five thousand of them from Europe.

So far, the numbers of ISIS fighters from the United States have been comparatively low.

More than two hundred and fifty Americans tried to leave the country to join the caliphate in Syria or Iraq.

About half—a hundred and twenty-nine—succeeded, the report says. Some were blocked.

Only seven of those who made it to the battlefield have returned. As of August, the United States has charged a hundred and thirty-five people for terrorism offenses linked to ISIS; seventy-seven have so far been convicted.

Of course, these are the numbers we know, and even small numbers are significant. Terrorists do not need major manpower to succeed.

Even so, allow statistics to guide conversation and the processing of spin. Ideology knows no borders, but two oceans provide valuable buffer.

So does an already robust processing system. Vigilance must never falter, but neither must we surrender to mischaracterization.

Those returning have rights. Muslims coming are human. Let us protect ourselves, but keep our soul.


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