An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 foreigners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Islamic State (IS) and other Sunni jihadist groups. Of those, roughly 150 to 200 are American citizens. This report seeks to shed light on a related, yet understudied phenomenon, namely, that of Americans traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight against IS. While there have been a number of vignettes in the media highlighting particular Americans or groups of Americans who have traveled abroad to combat IS, this is the first systematic study, relying solely upon open source information, to provide a concrete understanding of not only the scale of the anti-IS American foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, but also their backgrounds and motivations.
This report’s principal finding is that there have been at least 108 Americans who have volunteered to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria between August 2014 and the beginning of August 2015. Other key findings include the following:
- As of 13 August 2015, 70 of the Americans appear to still be abroad.
- The Americans hail from at least 31 states across the US; more foreign fighters come from Texas than any other state.
- More than two-thirds of the Americans have prior military experience.
- With the exception of the Coast Guard, every branch of the US armed forces is represented among the Americans, with the Marine Corps and Army predominating.
- The age range of the Americans is between 23 and 61; anecdotally, the Americans appear to be in their 20s and 30s on average.
- Ranging from software engineers to surf instructors, there is no one-size-fits-all occupation or career field – other than military service – that characterizes the Americans.
- The three primary groups that the Americans join are – in order of popularity – the YPG, PUK Peshmerga, and Dwekh Nawsha.
- A wide range of motivations inspire the Americans to fight IS, not the least of which is a sense that something needed to be done in the face of IS’s continuing barbarity.
The report can be found in its entirety here.