Flaws in the Foreign Fighter Data - A Primer

Though there have been a few "leaks" by both the UN and the CIA in the past two months about the total number of foreign fighter in Syria (15,000), most current country-by-country figures are still based on a June 2014 report by Soufan Group, Foreign Fighters in Syria a private security consulting firm based out of New York. Indeed, just in the past few weeks, Sourfan's figures served as the basis of two stories in the run up to Tunisia's election - both built upon the premise that Tunisia had more foreign fighters, 3,000, than any country on earth. But this number was deeply flawed as are many other aspects of the report, in two primary ways:

  1. Soufan's numbers are routinely being presented as current totals by both Soufan and the media, but the report (and the original numbers they are based on) make it clear the numbers are a totality of all fighters since March 2011 - including fighters that have died or gone back to their native country. Presently, all of Soufan's figures are being presented as present totals, wildly inflating the actual number.
  2. Much of report is mere assertion. The report is scant on evidence and vague in what it does cite. A few of Soufan's sources are suspect on their face, namely the "more than 80 nations" figure which they got directly from Assad's deputy prime minister, Walid al-Moualem, in a Sept 2013 UN speech.
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1. Let's take one recent popular figure as an example. The New York Times and the The Washington Post recently cited Soufan's figure of "3,000 Tunisian foreign fighters in Syria" - the highest in the world

Tunisia, after igniting Arab Spring, sends the most fighters to Islamic State in Syria | Washington Post

Tunisia, a small North African country of 11 million people, has become the largest source of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, according to estimates by the Tunisian government and private analysts. [Soufan Group]

As many as 3,000 Tunisians, most of them men under 30, have joined the battle, placing this popular Mediterranean tourist destination higher than even Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the list of the homelands of the 15,000 or so foreigners fighting with the Islamic State and other radical militant groups.

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New Freedoms in Tunisia Drive Support for ISIS | New York Times


Tunisian officials say that at least 2,400 Tunisians have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the group — other studies say as many as 3,000 [Soufan Group]— while thousands more have been blocked in the attempt.

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And Soufan's own tweet:

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While both the Washington Post and The New York Times cite other Tunisian officials in support of these figures, the Soufan report is what's directly linked to (the Times links to the Washington Post infographic which is based on the Soufan report) and, presumably, what's supposed to lend the figure some objective weight. But the report doesn't say what either the Times or the Post or Soufan are claiming it says.

Firstly, if one looks at the Soufan report they make clear that the 3,000 figure is not a present total, but rather the totality of all the Tunisians fighters who have gone to Syria since March 2011:

Illustration for article titled Flaws in the Foreign Fighter Data - A Primer
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But the tense in both the Post and Times stories, as well as the Soufan promotional tweets, ignores this all together - effectively inventing several hundred foreign fighters that are not there:

As many as 3,000 Tunisians, most of them men under 30, have joined the battle..

.. foreigners fighting with the Islamic State and other radical militant groups.

This gives the distinct impression these fighters are presently alive and fighting but this isn't the case. And Soufan's tweet only makes sense if the White House figure of 15,000 includes ALL fighters over the past three years, which it doesn't.

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Indeed, if one follows the citation Soufan does list for this number:

Illustration for article titled Flaws in the Foreign Fighter Data - A Primer
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It references a radio interview with Tunisian Deputy Interior Minister , Ridha Sfar from a April 4, 2014, where he states that at the time (April 2014) there were only 1,800 Tunisian fighters in Syria with another 800 having already gone home

1,800 Tunisians Fighting in Syria, Says Ministry of Interior

A Ministry of Interior official said that 1,800 Tunisians are fighting in Syria, but that those who have not killed anyone may be eligible for amnesty procedures. - See more at:

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Now, again, both the Post and the Times have other estimates from unnamed officials, but the Soufan report, as far as it's being presenting as a real-time figure, is overshooting by roughly 1,200 fighters. It's possible the April 2014 number could be much greater now but that's not what the citation indicates. It seems Soufan lumped the 1,800 and the 800 figures spanning three years together, rounded up to "about 3,000", and this number subtly got morphed into the present figure of 3,000, rather than 2,600 over a 3.5 year span. Also bears mentioning that the Deputy Minister makes no mention of ISIS or radicals at all. Indeed, given that the total includes all fighters since the beginning of the civil war, its likely 100s of these fighters predate the rise of ISIS by many months - rendering the blanket "Islamist" distinction as it pertains to these figures terribly misleading. The apparent methodology seems rather vague so it's difficult to parse exactly

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2. The foreign fighters from "81 countries" number that Soufan cites - that has since been recited by several leading publications:

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It ain't half hot here, mum | The Economist

The Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence outfit, reckons that by the end of May as many as 12,000 fighters from 81 nations had joined the fray,

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Is based entirely on the assertions of Bashar al-Assad's deputy Prime Minister in a Sept 2013 speech to the UN while his government was under fire for chemical weapons attacks:

Combining all three categories, there is good evidence that fighters have travelled from at least 81 countries. Official figures are available for 25 of these, and although they are soon out of date, they give some indication of comparative volumes.

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Citation:

In September 2013, the Syrian authorities said that fighters from 'more than 83 countries' had joined the rebels.

gadebate.un.org/sites/default/files/gastatements/68/SY_en.pdf.

Here's a screen cap:

Illustration for article titled Flaws in the Foreign Fighter Data - A Primer
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Here's the link to the speech.

http://gadebate.un.org/sites/default/…

You can see that Al-Moualem provides no justification for this figure and, to say the least, has a bit of an incentive to exaggerate the problem. I think its very possible the current "more than 80 countries" figure could very well still be sourced from this, having simply been repeated over and over after being cemented in the Washington Post back in October. It's difficult to tell since many of the latest figures are simply asserted by the White House but it should be worth following up, especially considering the Soufan report can only materialize figures on 25 countries.

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Just some food for thought. I'm going to be doing more research but thought I'd share what I have if it's anything at all. These foreign fighter totals are politically very consequential - serving as one the main justifications for increased security and immigration measures and, as far as I can tell, no one has really approached them skeptically. I think someone should.

EDIT TO ADD - The Tunisia story is dubious if only because its now the sixth variation of the story we've gotten thus far.

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And the overall total: it's been historically historic ever since history :

Nov 2013: Number of foreign fighters from Europe in Syria is historically unprecedented.

DEC 2013: Number of foreign fighters in Syria nearly doubles

Feb 2014; Young European converts are swelling the ranks of Islamic State

Aug 2014: ISIS recruits at Record Pace in Syria

This Week: Foreign Fighters Pouring Into Syria Faster Than Ever, Say Officials

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