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Swedish Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: An Analysis of open-source intelligence and statistical data
Swedish Defence University, Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership (ISSL), CATS (Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies).
Swedish Defence University, Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership (ISSL), CATS (Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies).
2017 (English)Report (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has resulted in an increase in the number of violent Islamist extremists in Sweden, and a significant increase of people from Sweden travelling to join terrorist groups abroad. Since 2012 it is estimated that about 300 people from Sweden have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and, to a lesser extent, al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Even though the foreign fighter issue has been on the political agenda for several years and received considerable media attention, very little is known about the Swedish contingent.

The purpose of this study is to examine a set of variables of the foreign fighters that have travelled from Sweden to join jihadi terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq in the period of June 2012 to September 2016. Much of the statistical data analysed have been declassified and provided by the Swedish Security Service. The variables examined are: time of travel; age; gender; geographical concentration in Sweden; citizenship and country of origin; average time spent in the conflict area; numbers of individuals killed; number of returnees; number of fighters remaining in the conflict area; social media activities; and the financing of foreign fighters. The analysis includes 267 people that are or have been residents of Sweden.

36 people (first-time travellers) travelled to Syria or Iraq in 2012, 98 in 2013, 78 in 2014, 36 in 2015, and 5 in 2016. In addition, some of the foreign fighters have travelled back and forth between the conflict area and Sweden. About 80 percent are associated with IS, and more than 30 percent are associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. 76 percent of the foreign fighters are men and 24 percent are women. The amount of women has significantly changed during the period, from “a few” in 2012 to 18 percent in 2013, and constituting about 40 percent of the foreign fighters in the conflict area in 2014 and 2015.

The average age of the foreign fighters is 26, and there are no significant differences between the average age of men and women. Still, there is a great variation indicating there are very young travellers but also older ones, as the age ranges in a span of 50 years. 18 percent of the travellers (45 people) are 19 or younger, while about 60 percent (154 people) are between the ages of 20 to 29. Very few people above the age of forty seem to travel. The average age does not change over the period.

A majority of the foreign fighters, an estimated 80 percent, come from four of Sweden’s 21 counties – Västra Götaland, Stockholm, Skåne and Örebro. About one third of the foreign fighters are, or have been, registered in Västra Götaland County, one quarter in Stockholm County, and a tenth in Örebro County and a tenth in Skåne County. More than seventy percent have been residents of an exposed area (socially deprived areas hit by high criminality and low socioeconomic status). There is information that there have been recruiters in some of the areas, but social media may also have played a role in the mobilisation of foreign fighters.

75 percent of the foreign fighters are Swedish citizens, and 34 percent are born in Sweden. There are geographical concentrations to North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, as was seen in the 1990’s and 2000’s. There are also concentrations to the Former Yugoslavia and Russia. 38 countries are represented when analysing country of birth, and most of the foreign fighters have at least one parent with country of birth outside of Sweden.

The average time spent in the conflict area is 16 months, but there is great variation where some foreign fighters have been there for only a month and others for several years. The average time spent for men is 16 months, while the average for women is 21 months.

At least 49 people from Sweden have died in Syria or Iraq. All of them are men. The data shows that there are no indications that a larger group of the Swedish foreign fighters has been killed in one single battle. Not more than three people have died during a single month. About half of those who have died are from the Västra Götaland region.

As of September 2016, 106 foreign fighters (40 percent) had returned to Sweden, while 112 (42 percent) were still in Syria or Iraq. It is estimated that 49 of the 267 (18 percent) have died in the conflict.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Försvarshögskolan (FHS), 2017. , 135 p.
National Category
Political Science
Research subject
Statsvetenskap med inriktning mot strategi och säkerhetspolitik
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:fhs:diva-6731ISBN: 9789186137649 (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:fhs-6731DiVA: diva2:1110355
Available from: 2017-06-15 Created: 2017-06-15 Last updated: 2017-06-15Bibliographically approved

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