Thousands of ISIS Fighters Returning to Western Countries, Including United States

Thousands of the Islamic State's foreign fighters are returning to Western countries, including the United States, as the militant group's territory fades away in Iraq and Syria. This is the bittersweet byproduct of the recent victories against ISIS in places like Syria's Raqqa and Mosul, Iraq. 

A recent report from the Soufan Center, based on an analysis of official numbers from 48 countries, concluded at least 2,000 former ISIS members have gone back to Western countries. It's estimated approximately 1,500 fighters have returned back to the European Union. Roughly 400 have gone back to the United Kingdom, 271 have returned to France, and about 300 are back in in Germany. Meanwhile, seven have returned to the U.S. out of the 129 Americans who joined ISIS. 

Overall, 5,600 citizens or residents from 33 countries have returned home, according to the report. States are still figuring out how to respond to those who've returned. But, perhaps surprisingly, they don't seem to pose as big of a threat as some might have anticipated. 

"At least initially, those who have traveled to Syria are less likely to see themselves as domestic terrorists than those IS sympathizers who have stayed at home," the Soufan Center report says. "They generally appear to have had a stronger desire to join something new rather than destroy something old. As a result, returnees have, so far, proved a more manageable problem than initially anticipated."

Roughly 40,000 people from over 110 countries made their way to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS both before and after it became a self-declared caliphate, in 2014. At this point, most are dead or still fighting. 

11_02_ISIS ISIS has lost much of its territory in Syria and Iraq but continues to have appeal to extremists globally. Getty Images

A Pew Research Center survey from August 2017 found ISIS is seen as the top global threat by people across the globe. This was especially true in the United States, where 74 percent cited the organization as the No. 1 threat to the world. 

On Tuesday, Manhattan was struck by an attack that left eight people dead, not far from the site of the September 11 attacks. The accused attacker pledged allegiance to ISIS, though the organization has not claimed responsibility for the incident. But the Manhattan attack stands as a reminder of ISIS's continued global reach, even as its so-called caliphate disintegrates. 

An ISIS-linked group, known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is thought to be responsible for an ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. special operations soldiers on October 4. 

"[ISIS is] an incredibly difficult adversary,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said at a security conference in Washington last month. "They still have the capacity to control and influence citizens all around the world."

That said, Americans remain relatively safe from ISIS and are far more likely to be killed by other domestic threats. Since 9/11, 97 Americans have been killed by jihadis on U.S. soil, according to data from the New America Foundation, including the two who were killed in Manhattan on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, over 15,000 were killed by gun violence in the U.S. in 2016 alone, according to Gun Violence Archive. So far this year, over 12,000 have been killed by gun violence in the U.S., including 58 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, in Las Vegas on October 1. 

Join the Discussion