Check out my new ‘Policy Watch’ for the Washington Institute: "The Return of Sunni Foreign Fighters in Iraq"

Much attention has rightfully been given to the massive wave of Sunni foreign fighters entering Syria to fight the Assad regime in the past two-and-a-half years, but an overlooked aspect of the war’s spillover is the effect on neighboring Iraq. In particular, a growing number of foreign fighter contingents have returned there under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), determined to fight the Maliki government and the Sunni sahwa(awakening) movement that joined the United States last decade in standing up to “al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers” (popularly known as AQI, one of ISIS’s prior names). This trend — in conjunction with Iraqis fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and the group steadily seizing territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria — has effectively melted away the border. ISIS operatives now operate in both countries and view crossing the border as nothing more than going from one province in their “Islamic State” to another.
This week’s ISIS takeover of Mosul can be viewed as the crest of a second wave of foreign fighters entering Iraq. The first such jihadist wave occurred during the height of the Iraq war last decade, when an estimated 4,000-5,000 foreign fighters arrived over a five-year period (mostly Saudis, Libyans, and Syrians) and were largely quelled by the local sahwa movement and the U.S. “surge.”
After the backlash against AQI several years ago, the organization decided to “Iraqify” itself, believing that locals viewed it as a foreign entity since many of its leaders and members were from other countries. As part of this decision, the group rebranded itself as the Mujahedin Shura Council and later the Islamic State of Iraq, which in turn was changed to ISIS in April 2013 to incorporate its new area of operations (“al-Sham” includes Syria).
The creation of ISIS and its official entrance into the Syrian arena had major reverberations back in Iraq, including an uptick in the death toll from ongoing violence. According to Iraq Body Count, a website that has collated civilian deaths since the start of the 2003 war, approximately 389 deaths occurred per month during the post-sahwa/surge period (October 2008-April 2013). Yet from May 2013 to May 2014, the rate rocketed to 1,029 deaths per month, and June is projected to outpace that average. This upward trend is in line with datasets released by the UN and Agence France Presse, albeit with differing numbers due to their distinct methodologies.
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