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Understanding the Threat: What Data Tell Us about U.S. Foreign Fighters


The phrase has saturated the media: “foreign fighter,” individuals compelled by ideological or other convictions to join insurgencies and military actions outside their nations of residence. The mere mention of the term seems to spark the most pronounced fears about the terrorist threat to the United States, fears that American youth may be lured into combat by promises of glory and rewards, and will soon return as battle-hardened jihadists intent on wreaking havoc. Last week, Ali Saleh, a 22-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was arrested after making several failed attempts to join the Islamic State. Saleh’s story is not unique. Over the past 18 months, dozens of individuals, many of whom were seduced by ISIS’ finely tuned and social media-enhanced propaganda machine, have made attempts to travel to Iraq and Syria to join the terrorist group, causing FBI Director, James Comey, to proclaim that stopping the flow of fighters to foreign combat zones is among the “highest priorities” for the intelligence community. But, what do we actually know about U.S. foreign fighters? Is this truly a novel threat? Are returnees really more dangerous than others that may be intent on harming the United States? Are certain U.S. locales driving the problem?

Publication Information

Full Citation:

James, Patrick, and Michael Jensen, Herbert Tinsley. 2015. "Understanding the Threat: What Data Tells Us about U.S. Foreign Fighters," START College Park, MD. September. http://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_PIRUS_WhatDataTellUsAboutForeignFighters_AnalyticalBrief_Sept2015.pdf