How ISIS threatens the West

Updated 6:34 PM EST, Mon November 16, 2015
01:18 - Source: CNN
How the U.S. is responding to ISIS' phase 2

Story highlights

Peter Bergen: Data give clues about estimated 4,500 Westerners who have joined ISIS, other militant groups in Syria

They are usually young, including teens, often with familial ties to other jihadists, Bergen says

A growing number are women, he says

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad.” He is the lead author of the just-released New America policy paper “ISIS in the West: The New Faces of Extremism”, co-authored by Courtney Schuster, a program associate at New America, and David Sterman a senior program associate there.

(CNN) —  

On Friday, France had its 9/11.

At least 129 people were killed at multiple locations in Paris, including a concert hall, a soccer stadium and a popular restaurant, the kinds of venues that ordinary Parisians flock to on a Friday night.

At, or near, these venues the attackers deployed a mix of terrorist tactics, including suicide attackers, an assault using more than one gunman willing to fight to the death, hostage-taking and bombings.

In the years after 9/11, we have seen various forms of this terrible news story play out: the multiple bombs on trains in Madrid that killed 191 in 2004, the four suicide bombings in London that killed 52 commuters in 2005, and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, by 10 gunmen who killed 166.

The attackers in Paris seemed to have learned lessons from all these attacks. (By the way, this is also the case of U.S. school shootings in which the perpetrators study the tactics of those who have gone before them.)

French President Francois Hollande blames ISIS for the attack, and the terror group has claimed responsibility. According to French prosecutors, one of the attackers who has been identified is a French national known to police, and a Syrian passport was found on the body of one of the other attackers. CNN reports that this militant was posing as a Syrian refugee. It is still early in the investigation, but according to CNN French affiliate BFM, six of the Paris attackers spent time in Syria.

Until now, French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche is the only case of a Western fighter in Syria accused of returning to conduct a deadly terror attack – the May 24, 2014, shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, that left four people dead. Nemmouche had served time in a French prison, and he had an assault rifle when he was arrested in France. A French journalist held by ISIS reportedly has identified Nemmouche as one of the group’s alleged torturers. Nemmouche has been extradited to Belgium, where he awaits trial.

Returning militants from Syria are a worrying potential source of terror attacks. And two major factors place Europe at far greater risk of “returnee” violence from veterans of the Syrian conflict than is the case in the United States: the much larger number of European militants who have gone to fight in Syria and the existence of more developed jihadist networks in Europe.

Before ‘Jihadi John,’ Mohammed Emwazi in London terror network

France has supplied more fighters to the Syrian conflict than any other Western country. In September, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Parliament that 1,800 French citizens have been involved in jihadist networks worldwide – almost all of whom were drawn to the Syrian war. Nine months earlier, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve estimated that 185 militants had returned to France from Syria. Of those who had returned, he said 82 were in jail and 36 were under other forms of judicial control.

02:47 - Source: CNN
Scenes from Paris attack

German security services report that 720 Germans have left for Syria, and they estimate that 100 have been killed there, while another 180 have returned to Germany.

Last year, the Belgian Foreign Ministry released figures that up to 350 Belgians had left to fight in Syria.

Upward of 700 British citizens have left for Syria, with about half estimated to have returned to the United Kingdom, according to British officials.

In January, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop placed the number of Australians fighting abroad at 180, with 20 having died in Syria.

So who exactly are the estimated 4,500 Westerners who have been drawn to join ISIS and other militant groups in Syria?

To provide some answers to that question, New America collected information about 466 individuals from 25 Western countries who have been reported by credible news sources as having left their home countries to join ISIS or other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria or Iraq.

The Western fighters drawn to Syria and Iraq represent a new demographic profile, quite different than that of other Western militants who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Bosnia in the 1990s.

First, women are represented in unprecedented numbers. One in seven of the militants in New America’s data set are women. Women were rarely, if at all, represented in previous jihadist conflicts.