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The Other Foreign Fighters: An Open-Source Investigation into American Volunteers Fighting the Islamic State

August 26, 2015

By Nathan Patin


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.


Nathan Patin

Nathan Patin is a Washington, D.C.-based independent researcher and private investigator at the Mintz Group, an international corporate investigations firm. He focuses on open-source investigation tools and techniques, cybercrime, and the Middle East. He has been a member of the Bellingcat Investigation Team since 2015, and he was a guest presenter at Bellingcat's 2018 and 2019 Washington D.C. workshops.

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  1. Docduracoat

    I am glad to see that some Americans are standing up and helping to fight Isis.
    The Kurds are the only group to stand up to Isis. The U.S. government should do more to assist them in their struggle against barbarism.
    Good on the private citizens going there to fight the good fight.

  2. Matt Justinak

    Does anyone have a contact phone number for the representatives who are recruiting volunteers of prior military personel to fight against Isis? I am interested in joining in the fight against them.

    • schlomo spits

      If you can’t figure out how to get in touch with the group, it shows you are probably not resourceful enough to be over there. And if you ask for a phone number, who is to say you wont be given a number for ISIS, who will gladly invite you over to meet with one of their reps.

  3. Nathan Woods

    I have contacted the facebook pages “People’s Defence Units Media Center” and “The Lions of Rojava” however, I have not received any replies in the last 24 hours


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