ISIS numbers don't tell the whole story

Story highlights

  • Using "foreign fighter" number totals out of context can be misleading, says David Sterman
  • Media outlets continue to use such numbers to stoke fears about ISIS and other terrorist organizations, Sterman says
  • Sterman: The reality is much more nuanced, and in fact the West appears to be making big gains against ISIS

David Sterman is a senior program associate at New America's International Security Program and holds a master's degree from Georgetown's Center for Security Studies. His work focuses on homegrown extremism and the relative roles of NSA surveillance and traditional investigative tools in preventing such terrorism. The opinions expressed here are his own.

(CNN)On February 9, National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified that 6,900 Westerners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for foreign terrorist organizations -- an increase since the last time the United States released an official foreign fighter count.

Though the number sounds alarming, it reveals less than it may seem. The official foreign fighter count cited by Clapper can only get larger and so risks stoking public fear unnecessarily. The total number of foreign fighters who have ever gone to Syria doesn't matter nearly as much as stemming the flow and reducing the current number of fighters. Recent advances and policies may have begun doing just that.
    But the cumulative number is cited over and over again to emphasize the threat from ISIS and similar groups. The Washington Free Beacon reported in February: "Top intelligence community officials warned Thursday that the United States faces the highest terrorist threat level since the 9/11 terror attacks, citing a record-breaking increase in the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq."
    David Sterman
    In 2015, NBC reported "ISIS By the Numbers: Foreign Fighter Total Keeps Growing."
    Here's what Ryan Greer, former policy adviser on foreign fighters at the State Department, said about it: "A cumulative total of fighters who have ever gone may speak to the overall scope of the challenge we face, but in order to measure the coalition's progress, we need to look at the current monthly rates. ... The cumulative number will always go up -- that's not useful for anyone."
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    Whatever the cumulative number, the monthly rate of fighters flowing into Syria may soon drop below the death rate, which means ISIS and organizations like it would suffer a decline in manpower available to staff their quasistate, wage war in Syria and Iraq and conduct terrorist operations abroad.
    Recent military advances are closing in on the last of the territory connecting ISIS-controlled areas with Turkey -- an area encompassing the main foreign fighter route -- and Turkey has simultaneously increased its efforts to police its border with ISIS territory.
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    Meanwhile, social media companies have mobilized to constrain ISIS' online recruitment apparatus. Twitter has suspended more than 125,000 ISIS-supporting accounts since 2015.
    And other efforts to disrupt ISIS recruitment networks have expanded as well. In the United Kingdom, a record 315 terrorism suspects were arrested in 2015, and in the first 18 days after the November attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, France conducted 2,000 raids detaining 210 people.
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    Perversely, expanded policing can increase the count.
    While Clapper testified that 6,900 Westerners "have traveled to Syria" since the conflict's beginning, the count actually includes individuals arrested before reaching Syria.
    "More than 150 U.S. persons and at least 3,400 Westerners have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to participate in the conflict," Francis Taylor, Department of Homeland Security under secretary for intelligence and analysis, testified in February 2015. And a September 2015 United Nations report refers to a count of those who departed for Syria -- thus including those arrested outside their home country, for example in Turkey, but who may never have made it to the battlefield.
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    At the same time, foreign fighters continue to die in Syria at a high rate. When New America looked at 474 cases of individuals who had left for Syria and Iraq, it found that more than a third were dead. Among the men, the death rate was almost 50%.
    Examining death counts to the exclusion of other measures can be just as misleading. Body counts can easily eclipse strategic questions. The United States cannot kill its way out of the Syrian civil war, and comparisons of the inflow of foreign fighters and the death rate are only one set of measures.
    However, with 51% of the American public worried they or a family member will be the victim of terrorism, it is essential to move away from a cumulative count that cannot convey success if and when it occurs.
    Judging by recent remarks by Brett McGurk, U.S. envoy to the coalition to counter ISIS, the administration is trying to do exactly that.