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Insurgents Draw Westerners To Battle In Iraq And Syria


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Over years of conflict in Syria, it's estimated that thousands of Westerners have turned up to join the fight. And now some are crossing into Iraq, as well. Last week, an English-language recruitment video from the Sunni extremist group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, went viral. In it gun-toting militants called on Muslims in the West joined them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Answer the call of Allah and his messenger, when he calls you to what gives you life. Amana Colterby (PH) says that what gives you life is jihad.

BLOCK: We're going to take a closer look now at why ISIS has been so successful at recruiting Westerners. And to do that we're joined by NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston and Dina, let's talk about the estimated number first. Where is that number - thousands of Westerners - coming from?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, there was an editorial last week by the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. And he said there were about 3,000 Westerners fighting in Syria and Iraq. And three intelligence officials we talked to said they now think that number is low. The total is probably closer to 5,000 Westerners now. But it's important to note that these people are not all fighting for ISIS. There are hundreds of rebel groups there that they might be joining forces with.

BLOCK: And where are they traveling from? Have government officials broken that down by country?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They've tried to. I mean this isn't a precise number. But officials say that British Muslims are traveling in the greatest numbers. And there's a large contingent from Germany and France, as well. The French government has said between 700 and 800 French passport holders have traveled to Syria and possibly crossed into Iraq, as well. European officials are tracking dozens of young men who have left the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and also in North America, Canada. The latest American count is about 100.

BLOCK: And will there be anything that the U.S. government could do if they wanted to stop Americans from going to join the fight?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the problem is simply traveling to Syria - maybe going there to help the humanitarian effort there - isn't a legal. But joining up with ISIS is illegal. The group's on the State Department's list of designated terrorist organizations. And in fact, the first American case involving ISIS was resolved today. Michael Wolfe, who is a young man from Texas, just pleaded guilty to attempting to provide support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization and that organization was ISIS. And he faces up to 15 years in jail. And those are the first terrorist charges in the U.S. that we've seen directly related to ISIS.

BLOCK: Dina, what is the appeal here? Why is this conflict apparently attracting so many Westerners?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's a combination of things. Part of it is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria captured land and it's promised to turn into an Islamic state. That's something al-Qaida's been talking about since its inception and hasn't been able to do. So there's some attraction because of that. Another reason is the brutality of the Syrian regime. What's going on in Syria has galvanized a lot of the world's Muslims. And you don't really have to subscribe to al-Qaida's ideology to think as a Muslim, you need to help your Muslim brothers in Syria. It's what's known as the defensive jihad. And Syria fits rather seamlessly into that narrative. And then on top of all that, there's social media. It's playing a huge role. It's easy to correspond with people who are fighting there through Twitter and Facebook.

BLOCK: We've also, Dina, been hearing a lot of concern about the risk that these people who've gone to Syria and Iraq will then return to their home countries, whether it's in Europe or the United States, and launch attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's what worries counterterrorism officials. Last month, a Frenchman who had been fighting with ISIS came home. And then weeks later, he traveled to Brussels and opened fire on a Jewish museum there and three people died. And that's the first documented incidence of someone coming back from Syria and launching an attack at home. And officials are worried that's just the beginning.

BLOCK: OK NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.