Sweden's security services Säpo estimates that around 300 people travelled to Iraq and Syria to join militant groups between 2012 and 2016. Researchers at the Swedish Defence University have looked more closely at 267 of them for a study on foreign fighters which sheds unique light on a key debate in Europe.
They found that a total of 18 percent of people who left Sweden to fight for jihadi groups were 19 or younger, compared to 60 percent who were aged between 20 to 29. Most of them were men (76 percent) and 24 percent were women, but the number of women taking part in the armed conflict rose from only a handful in 2012 to making up around 40 percent of foreign fighters in the conflict zone in 2014 and 2015.
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Swedish terror expert Magnus Ranstorp presenting the report. Photo: Thommy Tengborg/TT
Three quarters were Swedish citizens and 34 percent were born in Sweden. Those born abroad came from a total of 38 different countries, states the report, primarily Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. However some came from former Yugoslavia and Russia. “In this aspect, it is not a homogenous group but rather a multi-ethnic one,” write report authors Magnus Ranstorp and Linus Gustafsson.
Four in five lived in one of four of Sweden's 21 counties: Västra Götaland in western Sweden, the capital Stockholm, Skåne in the south and Örebro in central Sweden. More than 70 percent lived in an area of Sweden considered socioeconomically vulnerable. “It is clear socioeconomic aspects are contributing factors alongside group- and peer influences, ideological factors and local recruitment drives,” write the authors, whose aim is to present facts and figures about the Swedish jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria.
“For the first time we have exact figures – not estimates – about Swedish citizens who have left for Syria and Iraq since 2012 to join jihadist terror groups. We can say with confidence where they come from, how old they are and the proportion of men, women and children,” said Ranstorp, research director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defence University.
“This report is unique in that it also provides an analysis of what we know about foreign fighters from other European states.”
The number of foreign fighters has dropped since the start of the conflict. A total of 98 first-time travellers are thought to have left Sweden in 2013 compared to five last year. Two in five have returned to Sweden, as of September 2016, while 49 of the 267 people part of the report are believed to have died in the conflict.
Some of the past years' terror attacks in Europe have involved foreign fighters returning home, but the report states that so far, this is unusual: “The reality so far indicates that very few of the returnees intend to commit terrorist acts in Sweden or Europe, in that their focus is primarily aimed at the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Important to say is that both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated groups have officially declared that Europe is a legitimate target, so that it cannot be excluded that future terrorist plots will involve returnees loyal to these organizations and movements.”
Read the report, 'Swedish Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: an analysis of open-source intelligence and statistical data', here.