WASHINGTON Most al Qaeda fighters in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and Libya and many are university-aged students, said a study released on Wednesday by researchers at the U.S. Army's West Point military academy.
The study was based on 606 personnel records collected by al Qaeda in Iraq and captured by coalition troops in October. It includes data on fighters who entered Iraq, largely through Syria, between August 2006 and August 2007.
The researchers at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center found that 41 percent of the fighters were Saudi nationals.
Libyan nationals accounted for the second largest group entering Iraq in that time period with about 19 percent of the total, followed by Syrians and Yemenis each at 8 percent, Algerians with 7 percent and Moroccans at 6 percent.
On a per capita basis, Libyans accounted for the greatest share of foreign fighters entering Iraq.
Previous studies found Libyans accounted for a far smaller percentage of foreign fighters in Iraq, the West Point researchers said. They concluded the U.S. military either underestimated the Libyan contribution of fighters or that the pattern has shifted since a Libyan Islamic militant group strengthened ties with al Qaeda.
"The apparent surge in Libyan recruits traveling to Iraq may be linked (to) the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's increasingly cooperative relationship with al-Qa'ida, which culminated in the LIFG officially joining al-Qa'ida on November 3, 2007," wrote authors Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman.
According to the study, the average age of the 606 fighters who entered over that one-year period was 24-25. One was 15 years old.
The authors called that finding "worrisome."
"The incitement of a new generation of jihadis to join the fight in Iraq, or plan operations elsewhere, is one of the most worrisome aspects of the ongoing fight in Iraq," they wrote.
"The United States should not confuse gains against al-Qa'ida's Iraqi franchises as fundamental blows against the organization outside of Iraq. So long as al-Qa'ida is able to attract hundreds of young men to join its ranks, it will remain a serious threat to global security."
The researchers found that of the 157 fighters who listed an occupation, 43 percent said they were students.
"Universities have become a critical recruiting field for al Qaeda," the study said.
About half of the Saudis in the personnel pool listed their work in Iraq as "suicide bomber" with the rest as "fighter." Some 85 percent of the Libyans and 92 percent of Moroccans in the pool listed themselves as suicide bombers.
The Combating Terrorism Center is part of the West Point military academy that trains officers for the U.S. Army. The authors said the study reflected their views, not the views of the academy, Pentagon or the U.S. government.
(Reporting by Kristin Roberts, Editing by Eric Beech)