Like British "Jihadi John," ISIS' Foreign-Born Recruits Are Lethal — And There Are Hundreds

When experts realized James Foley's executioner had a British accent, there was an air of collective surprise. But there shouldn't have been: Foley's killer, dubbed by the British press as "Jihadi John," is one of thousands of British and otherwise foreign ISIS members. In fact, the presence of Britons in the militant group is so pervasive that it's estimated that there are more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than for the British military.

And "John" isn't the only Briton in the ISIS in charge of their foreign prisoners. The BBC reported that he may be the leader of three militants, whose British accents earned them the nicknames "John, Paul, and Ringo" from their captives. And The Guardian spoke with a former hostage, who said the guards were UK-born militants.

UK government officials, for their part, were unsurprised by the revelation that "John" could be a British national. United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told USA Today that this problem has been a long-standing concern:

This is something we have been tracking and dealing with for many, many months and I don't think this video changes anything. It just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave.

The exact numbers of foreign ISIS jihadists are hard to peg. Estimates that put the number of British fighters anywhere between 300 to 1,500. France has a consistently estimated 700 fighters in ISIS, and Russia reportedly has 800. Based on recent analysis, NBC News reported that there may also be a "small handful" of Americans who have joined ISIS' ranks.

In June, the group released a video specifically calling Muslims living in Western countries to join the cause. Speaking in Colorado on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey said that ISIS is also using the Internet as a recruitment tool in America. One Colorado resident, Shannon Conley, has been charged with aiding ISIS and said that she was radicalized via the Internet.

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The Guardian's Shiraz Maher penned a column noting the good intentions of some British militants in ISIS when they entered Syria and Iraq. Those attitudes changed, however, over the course of months as he kept up correspondence with several British nationals who had committed to fighting for ISIS.

Over time, however, it is also clear that attitudes have hardened. Romantic notions of saving oppressed civilians from a government intent on killing them has given way to a culture of casual brutality and callousness.

Maher cautioned that Britons in ISIS are directing their energies towards the entire West, including their home country. This makes dismantling a body that has ties from all across Western nations all-the-more difficult. It also opens them to attack. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has warned of the threat foreign fighters in Syria, estimated by Holder at 7,000 strong, could pose to Western countries.

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This is a global crisis in need of a global solution. The Syrian conflict has turned that region into a cradle of violent extremism. But the world cannot simply sit back and let it become a training ground from which our nationals can return and launch attacks.

ISIS' main priority is establishing an Islamic state across Iraq and Syria, and they have a healthy cadre of foreigners willing to fight for the cause. They have made it clear that they will punish what they see as foreign meddling and destruction by horrifying means, as evidenced from the email sent to Foley's parents, which was released Friday.


And with foreign ISIS fighters tying them back to Western nations, it could leave countries far removed from the Middle East open to vulnerability.