Travel the Distance

Foreign fighters' crossed line

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Each dot represents 5 foreign fighters. Color of the dot shows when personal data is available, in this case about gender.

More than 30,000 fighters have taken up the cause or have been forced to leave by the Islamic state

More than 83,351,800 km were covered to reach the conflict area

There is detailed information only about 2,887 foreign fighters

Sources: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hauge, The Soufan Group

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Missing Roots

Foreign fighters are individuals that have, for a variety of reasons and with different (ideological) backgrounds, joined an armed conflict abroad. There are tens of thousands of fighters who left their own Country to reach the territories of Iraq and Syria, and ultimately take part in the conflict. They left their homes guided by the Jihad, namely «struggling,» a term that is originally interpreted, according to the sacred Islamic texts, as a profound push to improve the believer spiritually and culturally. In recent history, the term has been manipulated by those who instigate an Islamic «holy war,» assigning to it a distorted and violent meaning.

The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is just one of several groups participating in the conflict. However, a highly polished and targeted propaganda, together with an extremist interpretation of the Islamic religion’s sacred texts, have brought thousands of proselytes among the ranks of the terrorist organization. The struggle for the creation of an Islamic state thus shifts from the political borders of Syria and Iraq to reach and involve the world at large.

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The squares below show how many foreign fighters traveled to the territories of the conflict. The value displayed with the size of each square is the number of fighters that left their country.

Click on rhombus to see values

foreign fighters per country

The construction of the Islamic state is supported by faith and by promises of an eternal life, however this bet requires the pledge of entrustment of the material life. To fight for life with a life. The idea of ​​a world that shares a common law and a single faith transforms the feeling of marginality towards society in a profound sense of duty towards a different one that subjugates it. The «missing roots» are of whom feels lost within their own society and decides to search for them elsewhere.

Visual key

The call to join the terroristic group was answered by people all over the world, even from the most distant countries. On the map below, the position of each country reflects the geographical distance from each country to the destination. Countries to the left are located to the West from the destination territory; countries to the right are located to the East.

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Freedom of belief

The epicenter of the conflict is located in Syria and Iraq, but the war now involves neighboring countries and the entire international community. Pilgrimages to the territories of the clashes originates also from more regional contexts, which appear seemingly to be external to the cause of the Islamic state.

Like many other Islamic-inspired organizations, the ultimate goal of Daesh, acronym in the Arabic language for the ISIS group, is the establishment of its own interpretation of the Shari'a, the law of Allah. By them, a different order is not considered as possible. This is how religion becomes an instrument of legitimization of the attacks perpetrated by the fighters.

The war for the establishment of the Shari'a starts with foreign fighters in their country of origin, where the radicalization processes involves conversions to the Islamic religion, often for the so-called «last-minute converts.» These individuals, together with the muslims of second or third generation who decided to join the army of the Islamic state, chose the conversion to Islam in its most extreme form.

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You can see the relation of muslim population of a country to the number of foreign fighters that left from it. Countries are ordered by number of fighters and divided into three sections for secular, religious or ambiguous. Color helps to identify continents.

Secular countries
Religious countries
Ambiguous countries

Internal divisions

The war of the Islamic state is the last reflection of an internal dispute between Muslims that has been going on for centuries. During the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, there has been a significant increase in the number of foreign fighters after the battle of Al-Qusayr in 2013, where their own imams and religious guides incited the respective masses of Shiites and Sunnis to act, consequently leading to the worsening of the already-unstable relations between the two groups. Belonging to one or the other faction means to identify on norms, customs and precepts that in this context often conduct to extremism and fanaticism.

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The next interactive graphics shows the distribution of Islam confessions of Shia and Sunni in Islamic countries. Values are normalized to 100% for each country.

Click on rhombus to see values

shia sunni

Integration and radicalization

Most of the foreign fighters are young, sometimes very young, second or third-generation Muslim immigrants living a strong sense of inadequacy, often determined by unemployment and integration obstacles. The war of ISIS’ militias represents for many of them a possibility of redemption, with the promise of improving their economic status within the society they live in.

The continuous increase of foreign fighters and the multiplication of the number of attacks by the hands of jihadists in the West, urge a reflection on the causes of this discontent and the difficulties of social integration. ISIS is well aware of this leverage and exploits these vulnerabilities for its direct benefits, directing the works of proselytism outside places linked to the Islamic environment. The new war of terror is fought with the English language, on the web, and follows a very precise and professional social media strategy. It is a brand built on terror, with a definite and consistent visual depiction of it.

Visual key

The interactive graph correlates the economic data of the Gini index and the muslim population of the countries. Each rhombus varies in size to show the ratio of foreign fightes to Muslim population: bigger size means more fighters over the country's Muslim population.

Gini index: index that measures the inequality in income distribution of a nation’s residents. It is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds to perfect equality and 1 (or 100%) corresponds to perfect inequality. Countries with a lower index are those where income is distributed more equally.

The economic data is not available for the following countries of study: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

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Since 2012, Europe and the Middle East have become the stage of bloody attacks against the population, seen from ISIS’ violent point of view as a mass of «infidels.» The virus of terror has spread to all countries. The feeling of insecurity derived from the impact of the attacks and the impossibility of knowing if, where and when a stroke could occur, has been leading the population to a constant state of alarm. Populistic policies and events of racist oppression against immigrants are consequences and reactions to this feeling, the concern of becoming a target when in fact, we have all been hit already.

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The map below shows the intensity and the number of the attacks that were claimed by ISIS in Europe and in the Mediterranean area between 2012 and 2015. Size of the rhombus represents the number of attacks, while color intensity the number of victims.

Click on map to see values

viz-7_mappa attentati_eng


Foreign fighters are «stranger fighters» because they are strangers inside their own country. Disparities and marginalisation lead to a life lived on the edge. This can drive to going too far, crossing beyond not only physical borders but also those of civilization. The countries withstand the consequences of the pressure on their boundaries, they get distorted, deforming their original shape. Where de-form is the negation of beauty. We are facing a paradox: that journey to Mesopotamia, cradle of Civilization, is here translated into an involutionary path, which destroys and deletes from Time and History the passage of people in those lands. The Syrian civil war is a war of civilization, fought across the borders, now worn out, of all countries.

Visual key

The interactive map shows a deformed geography of the world. Each country was resized according to how many foreign fighters left over the Muslim population of the country. This ratio is expressed in parts per million.

Click on map to see values

map deforma