ISIL's loss of Raqqa last week is an appropriate time to look back on an aspect of the war long taken at face value, namely the true number of those who joined the organisation. Forty months of fighting since the group seized one third of Iraq and half of Syria can provide enough pointers as to whether official numbers make sense.
According to official data, ISIL attracted some 35,000 foreign fighters from across the world. The international coalition provided no specific statistics about membership from Iraqi and Syrian locals, at least not as definitively as numbers from foreign countries. Of course, it is easier for the coalition to gain a clearer idea about foreign membership since intelligence agencies can provide details about volunteers from their respective countries travelling to join the so-called caliphate.
Close observation of dynamics related to the anti-ISIL campaign as well as other battlefields, together with testimonies from locals who lived under ISIL’s rule and militants and officials involved in the war against it, suggest that publicly available statistics about the group’s membership and size may have been substantially inflated.
Let's start with locals. During countless interviews with people who lived through ISIL's rule in different towns, villages and cities, I have never encountered a single person who would not question the veracity of official numbers. Even in supposed gathering centres for ISIL members, such as Raqqa, locals or visitors indicate the number of foreign fighters was limited. Locals report dozens, not hundreds, of fighters roaming the city. Defectors point to certain fighters as familiar faces in the city centres or internet cafes.
Not all fighters would be visible, but local testimonies from all the major areas occupied by ISIL should provide insights into the size of a group. If locals consistently question the large numbers provided by officials, that should cast at least some doubt on those statistics. Some towns and villages have no ISIL fighters at all. In my hometown, an ISIL station would be located in one village to serve eight to 10 villages. Beyond such stations, ISIL establishes small patrols in critical routes to police an area.
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Also, Iraqi and Syrian interviewees in multiple areas have insisted that locals formed the majority of ISIL's members, especially in the first one or two years of the campaign. This meant that ISIL's membership was more than 70,000, a number that would surely raise the eyebrows of those who engaged in fighting in the two countries. For perspective, estimates had the total number of fighters in Syrian rebel groups, who once controlled most of Syria, at 75,000 men. For ISIL to reach that number, one would assume most of those defected to it, but that was never the case.
Rebel commanders even question these estimates, and put them at a much lower end. Groups like Ahrar Al Sham, for example, inflate their numbers for prestige and foreign funding. The claim that it had 30,000 proved to be greatly exaggerated when the group went to war with Jabhat Al Nusra, which also attracted a large number of foreign fighters, and whose number ranges from 8,000 to 15,000, by the counting of clerics who joined it. Also for perspective, what media report as a major offensive often involves a few dozen, not hundred, militants.
It is also common to hear locals ask the following question after major battles, where are the ISIL fighters? They raise such a question because they do not see the number of dead bodies they imagined to see in the wake of deadly battles. Of course, such proclamations tend to be conspiratorial; dead bodies are found under the rubble and a large number of local ISIL members are sometimes taken as prisoners. These questions, though, are all too common and are reflective of a wide disbelief related to the numbers provided by governments.
Finally, it is important to examine these numbers against the way ISIL has shifted tactics after it began to face quick and major territorial losses. Both government and ISIL reports agree that ISIL shifted to small fighting units, relying mostly on snipers stationed in key buildings, supported by fighters to repel attacks and engage the enemy. These tactics defined the ISIl operation at least since early 2016.
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And yet, the coalition says that 3,000 ISIL fighters were killed in a small city like Manbij and 6,000 fighters were killed in Raqqa — an ostensibly large number for small units scattered around the city. A few dozen of those left Raqqa by buses in an evacuation deal, and locals speaking to the Financial Times in April reported that ISIL militants "evaporated". People would have surely noticed 6,000 militants even if they were trying to hide.
The numbers simply do not add up. While figures for foreign fighters from the West tend to be largely accurate, some officials from other countries have conceded their statistics may not be so. Also, ordinary people, as well as militants who fought ISIL, seem confident the numbers are grossly inflated.
The number aspect can have practical implications. Officials involved in the international coalition tend to play up the role of foreign recruits and the appeal of the caliphate, for reasons related to mobilisation of other countries and the legitimacy of the global campaign in Iraq and Syria. But that can misrepresent the threat and downplay its local dimensions. In Iraq, especially, locals make up the majority of ISIL’s cadres, and this will continue to be the case. In Syria, the group’s presence is less deep, but locals enabled its consolidation of half of Syria, before many abandoned it.
Seeing it from a local perspective, the number of foreign fighters appears to be significantly inflated, and the undue focus on their role relative to that of local leaders and fighters can impede one’s understanding of the group and its future.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy