About the estimated 200 Australian fighters in Syria again

Since April, almost every article about Australian involvement in the Syrian civil war, repeats the claim that 200 Australians are fighting in the insurgency.

This number is being treated as the one and only official estimate, and two days ago an article in TIME incorrectly attributed the number directly to “a public statement made by David Irvine, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)”.

In this post I argue that the 200 figure should not be treated as authoritative, and present several reasons why it’s likely to be an over-estimate. I’ve made several of these arguments before, but as the TIME article irked me I’ve decided to put them all together to make a clear case for scepticism.

 

There is no one official, public, estimate of the number of Australian fighters in Syria. Instead there have been several conflicting reports of statements by government officials.

200 figure originated from an article in The Australian on Saturday 13 April, where Cameron Stewart and Paul Maley reported that “the number of Australians believed to be fighting in Syria has doubled in less than six months to about 200, and ASIO is concerned that at least 100 are fighting for radical al-Qa’ida offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.”

In an article published on Monday 16 April, a journalist had asked ASIO Director-General David Irvine about Australians fighting in Syria. He stated that “we are talking in the hundreds and not the tens”. This suggested that ASIO officially endorsed the estimate of 200 or more fighters (which was how I interpreted it in this article I wrote on the day).

However, Irvine’s words may have been a bit more ambiguous. While the journalist, Brendan Nicholson, stated that Irvine was referring specifically to fighters, it is not clear from the actual quote whether Irvine was referring only to fighters or to all Australians involved in the conflict in some capacity.

Later that evening, Foreign Minister Bob Carr was interviewed on 7:30 and explicitly downplayed the 200 fighters claim by saying:

“There was a global figure quoted on the weekend in an interview I did that I can’t confirm or deny. The number of Australians who actually had been participating in the fighting would be a good deal lower than that 200 figure that was quoted. That 200 figure, if it is right, would include people who are raising money, expressing sympathy, people who have been described to me as Jihadist tourists turning up in a trouble spot.” [emphasis added]

Recent reporting casts further doubt on the ‘200 fighters, 100 with Jabhat al-Nusra’ claim. On 22 June Federal Police Commissioner Peter Drennan, while cautioning that the numbers were unclear, said that only “a handful” of Australians were believed to be fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra. It’s not clear how many “a handful” is, but it certainly sounds like less than 100.

Then on 1 July the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “the Australian Federal Police believe 150 to 200 Australians have travelled to Syria, with a significant proportion fighting with the resistance, about half of whom are with al-Qaeda aligned group Jabhat al-Nusra”. [emphasis added]

So there are no solid numbers available, but the ‘200 fighters, 100 with Jabhat al-Nusra’ claim should just be considered as one estimate among several, and all other government statements (with the possible exception of David Irvine’s) suggest the number is lower.

 

My own view is that 200 figure is extremely high compared to past trends in Australian jihadism, and therefore is probably an over-estimate. I went into that in the article from April:

“A recent study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), based on 450 sources including Western and Arabic media and online jihadist forums, estimates that 135-590 Europeans have joined the insurgency.

At the time the ICSR’s European estimates were published, April 2, the study’s author Aaron Zelin provided the following estimate for Australia: 18-123 fighters.

…..

The ICSR’s estimate has been superseded by the more recent figure of 200 Australians involved. This new figure cannot currently be verified, and should be treated cautiously until more information comes out. The estimate is higher than the ICSR’s maximum estimates for any European country, and one third of their maximum estimate for Europe as a whole. This seems doubtful, particularly as Australia usually has far lower rates of jihadist activity than many European countries.

Open-source research by myself and my colleague Shandon Harris-Hogan has found 17 cases of Australians allegedly involved in jihadist activity in Lebanon between 2000 and 2012. If the estimate of 200 Australians involved in jihadism in the Syria-Lebanon region since the outbreak of the Syria conflict is accurate, it represents an unprecedented escalation.”

 

None of this changes the fact that there has been substantial Australian involvement in the insurgency, and that the Syria conflict raises extremely serious security concerns for Australia, both because of current local violence and the potential threat from returning fighters.

But that only makes it more important for anyone writing on the issue to be careful with the facts. Personally, I can’t make any claim to know what the actual number of Australians fighting in Syria would be, and will reconsider my arguments if more solid information becomes available. However,  for now I recommend scepticism towards this widely-reported 200 figure.

This large estimate is worrying but fortunately not authoritative, as it is in serious tension with several government statements, the currently available empirical information, and past trends.

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