Over 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria: Experts

More than 12,000 foreigners from 74 countries have gone to fight with rebels in Syria, 60 to 70 per cent from other Middle Eastern countries and about 20 to 25 per cent from Western nations, a leading expert on terrorism has said.

United Nations: More than 12,000 foreigners from 74 countries have gone to fight with rebels in Syria, 60 to 70 per cent from other Middle Eastern countries and about 20 to 25 per cent from Western nations, a leading expert on terrorism has said.

Prof Peter Neumann, who directs the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, yesterday said the Syrian conflict has sparked the most significant mobilisation of foreign fighters since the 1980s war in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation, where up to 20,000 foreigners participated over the course of a decade.

With over 12,000 foreigners taking up arms in Syria in just three years, he said, "that conflict is well on track to becoming the most significant mobilisation of foreign fighters that has ever taken place in living memory."

Neumann said that is significant because out of the Afghan conflict came al-Qaida and other jihadist networks. The Syrian conflict is now forging new networks, and Neumann said, "I am confident...That out of that foreign fighter mobilisation, over the course of the next generation there will be terrorist attacks."

Neumann has been consulting the UN Security Council ahead of its September 24 summit meeting, chaired by President Barack Obama, on foreign terrorist fighters and the threat they pose.

He did not give a breakdown on how many foreigners were fighting for the Islamic State militant group, which has captured a large swath of Syria and Iraq, or for the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra group or other armed groups like the Free Syrian Army.

Neumann said the number of foreign fighters stagnated or decreased from December to June because of infighting between armed groups in Syria, but once the Islamic State group started capturing territory, including Iraq's second-largest city Mosul, and declared a caliphate, it started attracting more foreign fighters.

Tunisia has sent the largest number of foreign fighters to Syria, up to 3,000, he said. Saudi Arabia's government has given two estimates -- 1,200 and 2,500 Saudi fighters -- while Morocco and Jordan each have about 1,500 though a lot of the Jordanians have tribal connections in Syria, he said.

Among Western nations, there are about 700 foreign fighters from France, over 500 from Britain, 400 from Germany, 300 from Belgium and 100 from the US, Neumann said.