Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq

A First Look at the Sinjar Records

Jan 02, 2007

On December 4, 2007 Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the reputed Emir of al-Qa’ida’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), claimed that his organization was almost purely Iraqi, containing only 200 foreign fighters. Twelve days later, on December 16, 2007, Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Sunnis in Iraq to unite behind the ISI. Both statements are part of al-Qa’ida’s ongoing struggle to appeal to Iraqis, many of whom resent the ISI’s foreign leadership and its desire to impose strict Islamic law.

In November 2007, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point received nearly 700 records of foreign nationals that entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. The data compiled and analyzed in this report is drawn from these personnel records, which was collected by al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliates, first the Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC) and then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The records contain varying levels of information on each fighter, but often include the fighter’s country of origin, hometown, age, occupation, the name of the fighter’s recruiter, and even the route the fighter took to Iraq. The records were captured by coalition forces in October 2007 in a raid near Sinjar, along Iraq’s Syrian border.

The data reveals several critical findings:

  • Saudis made up the largest contingent of foreign fighters entering Iraq. Libyans were second and Syrians third.
  • Recent political developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the prevalence of Libyan fighters in Iraq, and evidence of a well-established smuggling route for Libyans through Egypt, suggests that Libyan factions are increasingly important in al-Qa’ida.
  • The Sinjar Records reinforce anecdotal accounts suggesting that al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliates rely on smugglers and criminals—rather than their own personnel—to funnel recruits into Iraq.
  • Many of the foreign fighters entering Iraq arrived with a group from their hometown, suggesting that al-Qa’ida’s recruiters try to attract groups of friends simultaneously.
  • The majority of fighters that listed their occupation before traveling to Iraq were students. Universities have become a critical recruiting field for al-Qa’ida.

The Sinjar Records reveal several weaknesses that the United States and other governments can exploit:

  • Al-Qa’ida’s reliance on criminal and smuggling networks exposes it to the greed of mercenaries.
  • The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s unification with al-Qa’ida and its apparent decision to prioritize providing logistical support to the Islamic State of Iraq is likely controversial within the organization.
  • The Islamic State of Iraq has failed politically because it has been unable to balance the practical demands of its local Iraqi constituency and the religious demands of its foreign supporters.
  • The Syrian and Libyan governments share the United States’ concerns about violent salafi-jihadi ideology and the violence perpetrated by its adherents.

The authors assert that the United States may be able to increase cooperation from governments to stem the flow of fighters into Iraq by addressing their concerns about domestic jihadi violence.