1-in-800 young British Sunni men are fighting in Syria/Iraq – this should concern us all

Too many young Muslims are going abroad to fight with ISIS – but we should talk about this without posturing or point-scoring. 

In June, shortly before ISIS’s take-over of large chunks of northern Iraq, British Muslim commentator and journalist Sharif Nashashibi wrote:

“One would be forgiven for thinking there is an exodus of British Muslims going to fight in the Middle East. This is far from reality. The government puts the number at about 500 – that constitutes less than 0.02% of the 2.7 million Muslims in this country.”

Copying him to the word, Medhi Hasan of the Huffington Post, wrote last week:

“As many as 500 British Muslims are believed to have gone to fight for ISIS, which is 500 too many, but less than 0.02 per cent of the UK’s 2.7 million Muslims. A recent YouGov poll found that Muslims as a group are more patriotic Britons than Scots.”

The problem with such reassuring messages is that this 0.02% statistic includes in its 2.7m base figure many Muslims who are highly unlikely to sign up ISIS’s violent, sectarian and misogynist jihad; namely the very young, the old, women and Shias as well as other minority sects such as the Ahmedis. Surely more meaningful would be the proportion of young Sunni Muslim British men who were fighting in the conflict?

To get a better picture, I crunched some numbers from the 2011 census, which put the total number of Muslim men aged 18-34 (and therefore of approximately fighting age) in England and Wales as 451,150. Removing non-Sunni minorities (assuming 10% of the UK Muslim population) from this figure produces a figure of 406,035 British Sunni Muslim men in this age range.

Put against the estimated 500 British foreign fighters, this suggests that 1 in every 812 British Muslim Sunni aged 18-34 is presently fighting in Iraq/Syria (the inclusion of Scottish and Northern Irish Muslims wouldn’t materially affect the results). In percentage terms, this is 0.123%; higher than Hasan and Naqshabandi’s estimate by a factor of six. The statistics I have relied on do not include those that have been accused of either funding, promoting or actively trying to join ISIS.

Depending on one’s opinion of British Muslims, this proportion of militants could be seen as either comfortingly low or surprisingly high.

However, what should be beyond dispute is that this is a remarkably large number of people (in real and percentage terms) who have turned their backs on the all comforts of modern civilisation, their families, jobs, careers and educations to fight, unpaid and often unheralded, in a bloody foreign war.

Equally noteworthy is that these men (and they are nearly all men) have overwhelmingly joined ISIS, a group of neo-medieval religious fascists that openly revel in committing horrendous war-crimes. These include the routine execution of prisoners of war, the enslavement and rape of female captives, and the attempted genocide of religious minorities.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, however, is that for every British Sunni Muslim who has actively joined ISIS’s jihad, there are surely dozens or more who support the group’s aims and activities but who have not been able to summon up the funds, time, or courage to give up everything and travel to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq – as well as women who support them but feel unable to fight themselves.

ISIS recruitment is not the only issue either, there is al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and a whole plethora of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Jihadism has gone truly global in recent years and British Muslims have joined up with a whole variety of jihadist factions around the world. As such, we need to get accustomed to the fact that we will spend the rest of our lives dealing with and worrying about this menace whilst trying to convince others to take the threat seriously and not bury their heads in the sand.

These simple facts demand not posturing and point-scoring either from prominent Muslims like Mehdi Hasan or from ‘neo-conservative’ commentators more critical of Islam. More fitting would be a sombre reflection by both Muslim and non-Muslim Brits that this figure is far too high and that it reflects that something has gone badly, perhaps fundamentally, wrong in many of Britain’s Sunni Muslim communities, as well as in wider society at large. If we are going to collectively resolve the problem of militancy, jointly recognising the true extent of this problem is a necessary first step.


James Brandon is an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). He was formerly the Director of Research at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think tank. You can follow him on Twitter – @thejamesbrandon

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32 Responses to “1-in-800 young British Sunni men are fighting in Syria/Iraq – this should concern us all”

  1. davidbfpo


    You do not appear to take into account the number of ‘fighters’ who have returned. In May 2014 Shiraz Maher, of ICSR, commented that two hundred and fifty had already returned. Listen to podcast: http://warontherocks.com/2014/05/the-jihad-splits-al-qaeda-and-isis/

    Clearly we do not know why they have returned. Only a fraction appear to have been identified, arrested and charged with related criminal offences. What are we as a nation doing to respond to their return, officially and unofficially?

    It would be interesting to compare the stats between those who seek to join and join British military forces – I would guess it is far higher. It is a fact that a number of young adult males, irrespective of motivation, gravitate towards aggression and violence.

    This is not a problem unique to Sunni Muslims in the UK.

  2. David Lindsay

    British Citizens returning from ISIS, or whatever it now calls itself, are indeed a threat to our security, albeit a threat of our own creation.

    British Citizens returning from the IDF are likewise a threat to our security, at least if we fail to be seen to act against them, never mind what they will have been told about Britain by and among the recent successors, perhaps on occasion even the veterans, of the Irgun and the Lehi. This is not, or at least it is not directly or exclusively, about the current situation in Gaza.

    Prosecute them both.

  3. Dave Roberts

    How many to blow up a tube train? Ask Galloway, Andy Newman and Bob Pitt.

  4. Dave Roberts

    When was the last time a Jew exploded bombs on the London Underground? Any veterans of Irgun and Zvi Lehi must be in their eighties at least and to my recollection never killed anyone in this country. You talk some crap.

  5. David Lindsay

    They are the Grand Old Men, the Founding Fathers. They set the tone. And the line.

  6. Darren W. R. Fogel

    Don’t talk bollocks mr Lindsay, your left wing bias is showing !

  7. 3scoreand10

    make sure they are not allowed back into the UK and if they have family here in the UK throw them out we don’t want them here in Britain

  8. Trofim

    Islam is a form of societal cancer. It’s incurable without zapping and accepting the side effects. We should encourage young men to join ISIS where they can be exterminated without hearing a load of human rights bollocks from the left. If they return, our secret services should eliminate them. This is an emergency. Nasty things need to be done. If you walk down the Stratford Road in Sparkhill, you’re rubbing shoulders with future and past ISIS fighgers and their supporters. In reality, the problem of Islam cannot be treated without real war.

  9. gregqq

    We should hardly be surprised by the activities of the followers a cult established by a child raping paedophile.

  10. Trofim

    A threat of our own creation? Only insofar as we allowed Muslims to come and live in civilized countries in large numbers. Muslims are so constituted that they either dominate as they feel it their right to do, or whinge and refuse to assimilate into what they regard as inferior societies, while increasing their leverage by taking advantage of the naivete of their hosts, a bit of threat here and there, and making babies on a large scale.

  11. Dave Roberts

    You can’t wriggle out of this one. You placed British Jews who have served in the IDF as on the same level as returning Jihadis. Explain please.

  12. David Lindsay

    I don’t wriggle.

    The jihadis are only doing what their own government wanted to do when they went. That was when this site, among other people, was calling for International Brigades such as they do in fact comprise. You wanted this.

    In the meantime, Iran is now our active ally against the IS that we have created. Both our direct ally and, through Hezbollah, our ally by proxy. And there is is Assad. Welcome to the new Coalition of the Willing.

    We managed to make an ally of the Tsar. We managed the same for Stalin and Mao. We managed it for Saddam, once. We managed it for Assad the Elder. We managed it for Gaddafi, briefly. Iran, Hezbollah and Assad the Younger should be a doddle.

    Insofar as Israel is at war with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, then she is now at war on the same side as IS. If IS is now our enemy, then the IDF is now a body of our enemy combatants, and British Citizens in it are guilty of treason.

  13. Michele Engel

    Some will have joined the FSA. Whether you see a difference between ISIS & the FSA, or if that even matters, is another question.

  14. Guest

    So if an adult gets an idea, and goes off with it in a way you don’t like, you’d expel the entire family?

    Well, under your logic, when are you leaving? And your family?

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    The word is “persecute” when you’re looking to attack Jews in that fashion.

  16. Guest

    Ah yes, treason for daring to hate you and your IS buddies.
    What a surprise!

    Your fantasy about the IS being on the “same side” as Israel shows your rabid Jewhate, no more.

  17. Guest

    The usual, you’re showing that you’re far worse than any mere Islamist.

    You claim a right to dominate, you are refusing to assimilate into British culture and striking against it. You are seeing Britain as inferior and in need of change.

    And yes, your far right have high birth rate, not least because of poverty. And a high rate of prosecution for threats, along with violence and other crimes.


  18. Guest

    No, it’s an excuse for labelling those who oppose Assad, and the refugees, as Islamists and trying to exterminate them. It’s very much the same question – are you willing to stand for what the West espouse, as the FSA does, and ISIS does not?

  19. Guest

    Oh right, so you’re lashing out against the entire left, gotta be better than any mere Islamist, eh?

  20. Guest

    Yes yes, the usual – murder them all. Gotta take the “side effects” (which you intend) of becoming far worse than any mere Islamists, and of course you need to stop people from talking about that pesky right not to suffer genocide.

    And you ignore the fact that ideologically, you stand right with ISIL, and hence you are calling for your own execution. You are calling for your will of Satan, no doubt to become a demon with rule over the damned….same old…

  21. Guest

    “It is a fact that a number of young adult males, irrespective of motivation, gravitate towards aggression and violence.”

    Well, yes, the media’s following your stereotype (and that’s what it is). It’s already driven young males out of many types of teaching and medical jobs, and now you want worse.

    Never mind most would not hurt anyone except in self-defence, you are blaming them all…

  22. Trofim

    Buddies? What sort of person uses the word “buddies”?

  23. davidbfpo

    I am not blaming ALL young adult males. I stated ‘a number of young adult males….’.

  24. Ortega

    I hope this marks a move by Quilliam to identify the problem with ISIS/Al-Qaeda extremism as “Sunni” in origin moving forward. A lot of problems would be avoided if this was done more often. A lot of muslims of Sunni background don’t identify as “Sunni” or with Sunnism, and there are a huge number of people from muslim minorities in Britain. Talking about “muslim” extremism or communities just creates a caricature and alienates people who aren’t part of the problem.

  25. Joe Long

    Good piece, suprisingly hard-headed and realistic for a leftistist publication, though perhaps I do you an injustice judging by the many execrable Comment is Free pieces I’ve scanned.

    However you may well have unwittingly understated the gravity of the situation by understating the true number of Sunni “Britons” who have committed themselves to Jihad

    “A British MP says at least 1,500 UK-based Takfiri elements have travelled to the Middle East to engage in militancy against local governments.

    As the UK government struggles to identify the suspected British terrorist that beheaded US journalist, James Foley, earlier in the week, a lawmaker in the country’s parliament said the government estimates that only 400-500 Britons have travelled to fight in Syria is “nonsense.””


  26. Fedup2014Voter

    Utter rubbish. The IDF is a proper state army defending that state against attack by terrorists. To compare them to ISIL is just insulting.

  27. Fedup2014Voter

    I think you might usefully read up on how Islam was founded and the record of muhammad:

    Killed 800+ prisoners at Banu Qurazya, robbed trade caravans and fought 72 battles in last 9 years of his life. Moslems regards him as the perfect way to live an
    Islamic life.


  28. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, I’m aware you consider him and them far too nice, as you call for doing worse.

    As you try and tell perfectly normal people what they believe because you hate their faith.

  29. Guest

    The media sterotype’s in play, too late now!

    You’re sorry? Well, shouldn’t have started it in the first place.

  30. Fedup2014Voter

    That is not a hate site nor is the ECHR which has ruled that sharia law id “undemocratic and incompatible with human rights”:


    Then there is HRW:
    “PAKISTAN: The Council of Islamic Ideology intends to complete the elimination of the religious minorities”

    Try looking at this statistical analysis of Islamic texts as well:

    Then we have this on the general restrictions and social hostility to other religions in Islamic countries:

    There is a great deal more data. I suggest you try and read up on the reality of Islam and sharia.

  31. Alyson Cruise

    Fewer than 80% of British Mosques are Sunni, and this figure is readily available. Why did you use an estimate?

    Further, why do you present the statistic as evidence of ill or radicalisation without any context or comparison in a way that makes it uninterpretable except as rhetoric, eg, how many young Jewish men take part in Aliyah, is it more or less?

    Finally, why don’t you acknowledge the many potential sources of error – for example, ignoring non-Sunni radicalised men, ignoring women who go to fight for ISIS, or ignoring that 28.2% of all Sunni mosques in the UK are Barelvi (an incredibly pacifistic sect that specifically objects to “talibanisation” and violence and suicide attacks)?

    In other words, why can’t you make your point with credible data, if it’s so “beyond dispute”?

  32. Alyson Cruise

    According to the most highly-regarded traditional (ie Caliphate) authorities on sharia, it doesn’t apply to non-Muslims, even if they exist in a Muslim country.

    Making points about Sharia and intolerance of religious minorities in the same post is maybe not the strongest argument you could manage. Also you don’t have to say sharia LAW, that’s what sharia means. I hate to break it to you but it seems that you haven’t read up on the reality of any of this.

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