Small Wars Journal

How Many Fighters Does the Islamic State Really Have?

How Many Fighters Does the Islamic State Really Have? By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, War on the Rocks

Estimates of the number of fighters in the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are extraordinarily wide-ranging. On the low end of things, CNN’s Barbara Starr recently reported that “U.S. intelligence estimates that ISIL has a total force of somewhere between 9,000 to 18,000 fighters.” In late 2014, the CIA’s estimate of ISIL’s numbers was slightly higher, as its analysts assessed that the group had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters between its Iraq and Syria holdings.

Other estimates are far higher. Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has said that ISIL has more than 50,000 fighters in Syria alone. The chief of the Russian General Staff recently said that Russia estimates ISIL to have “70,000 gunmen of various nationalities.” In late August of 2014, Baghdad-based security expert Hisham al-Hashimi claimed that ISIL’s total membership could be close to 100,000. By November, Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, told Patrick Cockburn of The Independent that the CIA’s estimates were far too low, and that ISIL had at least 200,000 fighters

Read on.

Comments

Outlaw 09

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 10:56am

In Iraq 2005-thru to early 2007 at the Corp level I saw at least six different analysis theories on the number of Sunni insurgents as well as AQI.

In the end none were anywhere close to being accurate.

And we are suppose to trust the current figures from four different organizations?

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 9:30am

In reply to by Bill M.

Europe has a history of ideologically driven foreign fighters to the Middle East. This is a celebrated heritage, no??

The return of these fighters home is only a problem if they return to conditions of governance that are some mix of discriminatory, oppressive or illegitimate - and with the returnee perceiving little legal recourse.

Europe's problem is not foreign fighters. Europe's problem is systemic discrimination and fear of the cultural changes that the EU has brought.

Like with terrorism, we fixate upon and attack the problematic symptom, and largely ignore the true problem at hand.

Of note, curious about this, a little research revealed significant political unrest following the Christian crusades as well.

Bill M.

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 6:42am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I think the foreign fighter issue, especially one of this scale is a strategic level issue for the following reasons:

1. FFs are coming from multiple countries around the world. Not all politics are local, but they will manifest differently in each location based on local variables.

2. Their agenda is not confined to Syria and Iraq.

3. The number points to how effective their narrative resonates well beyond the region. A narrative we have largely been ineffective in countering. Not because we don't understand the political issues, but failure to understand that market based values leave a gapping hole in the souls of many, souls looking for identity.

Not unlike many U.S. college students who blindly participate in different protest groups, they really don't have a clue about the issue. I suspect the same applies here. Many are true believers, while others are seeking identity and adventure. Modern society doesn't provide that for many people.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 2:12pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill--we have not taken into consideration that a nation when it truly starts to believe it's own propaganda and is in the midst of a strong fascist revival and when they reach a stage called "altered state of reality"--the realm of West vs Rest pales.

Now even Romania is catching threats from Russia.

Russia warns Romania

World | nineoclock | February 12th, 2015 at 9:00 PM

The Head of the Centre for Political and Military Studies in Moscow, Lieutenant – Colonel Vladimir Evseev, says that if Romania, which is a NATO member, lets itself dragged in the confrontation of the North-Atlantic Alliance and Russia, military troops will be forced to neutralize certain military targets on the territory of our country.

Moscow has also made a list of these targets, and the list also includes the future command center to be positioned by NATO on Romania’s territory.

“On the territory of Crimea, a group of well-trained and autonomous terrestrial armed forces is being formed. Various devices will be available there, able to neutralize all possible threats. Unfortunately, if Romania lets herself dragged in this kind of confrontation, it is impossible not to put various military bases in Romania on the list of targets to be neutralized with various kinds of weapons. After military evaluations made by Russia, the military bases about to be built in Romania will provide the opportunity for more than missile defence devices. Russia is terribly worried that cruise missiles may be launched there as well, or similar devices. Russia will be forced to react not only to the appearance of command center, but also to that of any weapon deposits or any other kind of military infrastructure. We know that offensive potential may be created in Romania as well, this is why we will also seek means to annihilate the Romanian military fleet as well. I think that the confrontation will increase between our countries and unfortunately, we are entitled to have this opinion”, Vladimir Evseev, the Head of the Centre for Political and Military Studies in Moscow declared to Liviu Iurea, TVR correspondent in Moscow.

Bill C.

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 1:51pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Addendum to my Feb 12 - 11:57 am comment above:

Thus, to see the current crises -- in both the Islamic and the Russian Worlds -- EXACTLY in terms of my "transformation-trumps-stability" thesis above.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 1:41pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C---which is worse as a core threat to the US--a black flag waver or someone in an altered state of reality with a finger on the nuclear trigger?

On day of #Minsk peace talks, #Russia holds largest ever nuclear missile maneuvers-12 missile Regiments in action across all of Russia

That open threat displayed to the US by Russia cannot be matched by the IS.

Simple as that.

Bill C.

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 12:57pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

An attempt to keep it simple:

Do we have vital interests at stake, for example: providing for the global economy (the proverbial "rising tide that will lift all boats" and "the medicine that will cure all ills"); interests which would justify getting involved in:

a. Transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines (to wit: along lines best suited to advancing/expanding the global economy); while, simultaneously,

b. Preventing the transformation of such states and societies along other-than-modern western political, economic and social lines (thus, along lines less favorable or even detrimental to the global economy)?

The answer here would seem to be a resounding "Yes!"

This, given the fact that "a" and "b" above would seem to the basis for -- the backbone if you will -- of our foreign policy post World War II and still today.

(Morgenthau: "... trying to expand the reach of our respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other.")

Herein, the United States believing that to have a region that was "reasonably stable" -- but ordered, organized and oriented along, for example, "communist" lines during the Cold War or "Islamist" lines today -- this such "stability," obviously, would not serve our interests.

Thus the determination, after World War II, during the Cold War and still today, to willingly (1) sacrifice "stability" (regional or otherwise) for (2) the greater good (favorable transformation) and, thus, to try to "control" -- not only "political outcomes" -- but "economic" and "social" outcomes as well.

(Herein references to "stability" -- in the future -- to only be understood as that version which has been achieved via a modern western political, economic and social orientation. All other forms of stability being considered -- if not downright "evil" -- then certainly flawed and transitory; much like communism.)

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 5:27am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill - Keep it Simple, brother.

Do we have vital interests at stake justifying getting involved, yes or no?

If yes, do we need control over the political outcome to serve those interests, or do we merely need the region to be reasonably stable in a manner that keeps us in a workable relationship with governments and not perceived as suppressing popular sovereignty by the people under those governments?

If this too is yes, we have a range of courses that would serve our interests - but weighing in with an effort to "defeat" ISIL fails all tests. It is not acceptable, suitable, feasible or complete.

Yes, they are evil A-holes, but if that was justification for war we'd be very busy indeed.

Bill C.

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 8:08pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

An attempt:

Policy/Political Objective, Grand Strategy, Strategy, Operations, Tactics.

If this is the proper order of things, then I might start with Policy/Political Objective.

The Policy/Political Objective might be stated as the determination to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines; this, so that these outlying states and societies might, thus transformed, become:

a. More of an asset (1) to the United States, (2) to the so-called International Community and (3) to the Global Economy. And

b. Less of a problem for/liability to same.

Grand Strategy might suggest how all of the United States' instruments of influence, power and persuasion might be used to achieve this policy goal (to wit: the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western lines).

Strategy would address, I believe, what role the military might play in this endeavor.

It is in this latter regard (strategy: the use of military force, to help achieve the political objective of transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines) that we might understand our military's role.

Which might be:

To stand against those individuals/groups/entities (to wit: ISIS, AQ, Putin, etc.) who would organize themselves, and act, in such a way as to prevent our desired transformation of such outlying states and societies.

Note here that in my representation of the problem (resistance), as relates to our political objective (transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines), is not limited to -- and therefore is not addressed as -- being related to the Sunni Arabs/Syria-Iraq situation alone.

Rather, the transformation of outlying states and societies (along modern western lines) -- and the resistance problems related thereto -- appear to have (much to our chagrin, disappointment and dismay) more of a grand, global and enduring quality.

As such, should our "strategy" -- for dealing with such resistance problems -- also have such characteristics?

Attempting to come full circle now and address these matters more as per COL Jones above:

a. Might the problem be that various populations in the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere -- while having a role and a future within their own identity and within their own political, economic and social arrangements -- feel that they will have no such security and prestigious role in a state and society which is organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western lines?

b. If this is indeed the case and the problem, then should not our overwhelming mission be to provide these folks with a similar -- and/or more prestigious -- role and feeling of security; this, so as to assuage their (under our arrangements) "no future/worse future" concerns?

(This being the job that, obviously, has not been done.)

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 12:34pm

How many fighters ISIL has is an important tactical question. If our goal is to convert this weak, emergent state back into a fragmented revolutionary/separatist insurgency it is a good question to ask.

I believe the strategic question is not about ISIL at all. The strategic question is about the Sunni Arab populations of Syria and Iraq. The strategic question is "What % of the Sunni Arab populations of Syria and Iraq perceive that they have no future under those Shia dominated regimes, or any effective legal means to create necessary change"?

We need to stop thinking about and treating symptoms - unless of course we have clearly connected those treatments to desired strategic effects.