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The number of foreign recruits to the Islamic State is booming, but not in the U.S.

December 8, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
As U.S. officials worry about attacks inspired by the Islamic State group, a new report says the number of foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria has increased dramatically in the past year. Judy Woodruff learns more from Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group and Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As law enforcement and intelligence officials worry about attacks inside the United States inspired by the Islamic State group, a new report released today says the number of foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria has dramatically increased over the past year.

This chart shows most of the new fighters are from the Middle East and North Africa, the former Soviet Republics and Western Europe. The average rate of fighters then returning to Western Europe is estimated to be 20 to 30 percent.

We turn now to the lead author of the report, Richard Barrett. He’s senior vice president of the Ali Soufan Group. It’s a security consulting company. He’s also a former British diplomat and intelligence officer. And New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi. She’s written extensively about the Islamic State group and its followers.

Richard Barrett, Rukmini Callimachi, welcome to you both.

Let me start with you, Richard Barrett.

So, the number of foreign fighters going into Syria and Iraq increasing dramatically over the last 18 months. How much has it gone up, who are they, and where are they coming from?

RICHARD BARRETT, The Soufan Group: Well, we reckon it’s about doubled.

It’s gone from 12,000, as we estimated in June of last year, to somewhere between 27,000 and 31,000 now. And most of the recruits are, as you said earlier, from the Middle East and North Africa, but a considerable the number from other countries as well, most notably, of course, Europe, and Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

I think one thing that’s interesting perhaps is that, from North America, the number has remained pretty flat. There’s been really rather an unremarkable increase from North America, which is quite an illustration of your discussion earlier in the program.

But there are many reasons why people go to join the Islamic State, and it doesn’t mean that all of them are domestic terrorists in training. A lot of them will go to join the Islamic State. And I think the key question is about the returnees, whether they have some intention to do something like the Paris attacks or whether, in fact, they’re just fed up with the whole thing, completely disillusioned by the Islamic State and want to go home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I do want to ask you about the returnees, but back to the origin of their decision to make this move, what is driving most of them?

RICHARD BARRETT: Well, it’s hard to say, of course, and we need to know more.

But I think that the Islamic State does offer some very real attractions. I think it offers, obviously, some sort of adventure. And it’s a new venture as well. You can be in on something which looks really important from the very beginning. And you can be in on something which gives you a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of direction which may be completely lacking in your life at home.

And I think, also, it sort of forgives the past, so you can shed all your past and you can start afresh as a valued and respected member of society. And I think for many people who go to join the Islamic State, that, they found lacking. That, they found difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rukmini Callimachi, you have done so much reporting on this phenomenon. What have you found? What would you add to the why this is happening?

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, The New York Times: Well, I think, very broadly speaking, the young people that I have spoken to that have attempted to make this journey or have succeeded in making it seem to be coming from a place of emptiness in their lives back in the U.S.

I’m referring specifically to a young woman that I spent a lot of time with in Washington state who was recruited by a man that we believe was working for the Islamic State, and who — who didn’t end up going. But she was a young woman in her early 20s. She was living essentially in a trailer with her grandmother.

She didn’t have a job at the moment — or not a full-time job at the time when I saw her. And her idea of fun, she told me, was going to the mall and walking around the mall and looking at the shops and gazing at shop fronts, at merchandise that she could not afford to purchase.

So you could see from that place to then being seen as, you know, the wife of a future jihadist, that that could be exciting and that could be something that gives you true meaning in a life that isn’t filled with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, these — in your experience and what you have seen in your reporting is these are young people who lack something in their lives, rather than young people who are excited by something they see online, some of the propaganda that the Islamic State is putting out there?

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: I think that the first precedes the second.

I think that they’re — at least in the ones I have spoken to, there is a place of emptiness. And then this propaganda seeps in, and it’s extremely slick and extremely convincing. And in the case of the young woman that I profiled, she was extremely interesting because she was not just a person who had no faith and not a Muslim convert.

She was actually a Sunday school teacher. She was a very ardent Christian. And they managed to take her from that place to converting to Islam online, in private, without any other Muslims present, to very quickly from there on discussing potential marriage to a good Muslim and discussing her voyage to what they described as a Muslim land, which she understood to be Syria. And so it was very swift.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Barrett, on the question of who comes back to their country of origin and why they do it, whether they go back to commit an attack or whether they go back disillusioned, what did you learn about that and how that’s changing?

RICHARD BARRETT: Well, we’re trying to do a sort of systematic survey of returnees, trying to get hold of them and ask them, well, why did you go and why did you come back?

And it’s been quite difficult, of course. People generally aren’t particularly keen on talking about that. They come back and they just want to get on with their lives. They don’t want to be reminded of their experience in the Islamic State. And others who come back perhaps with more uncertain motives, then, of course, they wouldn’t want to talk to us either.

So, it’s been quite difficult to research that. But, so far as one can tell, I think many of them, as Rukmini Callimachi was saying, are caught up with some very emotional response to Islamic State. And when they get there, they found that actually it’s not really like that at all, and they have been sort of duped by their own mind and also by the propaganda.

And as Rukmini’s marvelous article in “The New York Times Magazine” illustrated, the Islamic State is very, very persistent in pursuing these possible weak characters that they want to draw in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Rukmini, are we learning from this what more the United States, other countries should be doing to slow this down, to try to put a — try to, if not stop it, at least cut down on the number who are attracted?

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: You know, I think the United States seems to be doing something right, because, as Richard pointed out, the numbers from America are flat, whereas they’re spiking in numerous other theaters, specifically in Europe.

So there is something that is working. What I would add is, in the case of the young woman that I was profiling, she managed to pull herself back from the edge of the cliff. And she did it through the help of essentially former extremists who are now back in the West and who saw the errors of their ways and are now online themselves trying to fish out people like this young woman who was about to possibly make, you know, a very terrible error.

And what I think is lacking is that there isn’t really a formalized place in America for those people. If you are somebody like Mubin Shaikh, who tried to go to Pakistan and met the Taliban years and years ago, but now has come back and is a law-abiding citizen and is actually helping de-radicalize people, it seems that there should be a place for those voices, because they’re very powerful.

Those are the people that can go and speak to the ideology. He was able to say to her, I have been there. I know exactly the verses that you’re talking about. Let me show you other verses that say the opposite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rukmini Callimachi, Richard Barrett, we thank you.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Thank you.

RICHARD BARRETT: Thank you.

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