On Their Way to Syria: the Journey of Foreign Fighters

On Their Way to Syria

The Journey of Foreign Fighters



  • Pamplona, March 31st, 2017
    Malofiej International Infographic Awards Ceremony

    “When we looked at this work, we understood it.

    The more we looked at it, the more we got out of it.

    It was beautifully designed, beautifully executed, and then at the end, or at the beginning depending on who you are, you notice the homage to the Great March.

    So it was all of these things, together, on a very difficult topic.
    This is something that I always wanted to understand and we all felt that we learned so much from it.

    The data was amazing, the presentation was smart overall and really wonderful, so congratulations.”

    — Sarah Slobin, Visual Journalist at Quartz, formerly NYT/Fortune/WSJ
    Malofiej25 Jury

In a nutshell

In the context of understanding the complex phenomenon of violent religious radicalization, this map details the journey of ISIS’ foreign fighters to the territories of the Caliphate, as well as of those who return. Starting from publicly available data, additional layers of information show how this phenomenon relates to the distance of each country from the destination, its total population and Islamic population.


Corriere della Sera – La Lettura #266, Visual Data
Market Cafe Magazine – Issue 2, Feature Interview


Malofiej 25 — Pamplona, Spain
Kantar Information is Beautiful 2017 — London, UK


To be announced soon


In the context of understanding the complex phenomenon of violent religious radicalization, this map details the journey of foreign fighters to the territories of the Caliphate. The data was retrieved from official organizations, research centers and consortiums that make this data publicly available.

"According to figures collected by the Soufan Group, between 27,000 to 31,000 people including women and children who would not normally engage in conflict have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic state and other extremist groups fighting in the region. Reasons that these people join Islamic state or any other extremist group seem to depend on where they come from." — Wikipedia, foreign fighters in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars

The research for faith and meaning is for foreign fighters a research for god. One god who materializes in the battle against infidels and aimed to the creation of the Islamic state. Starting from the data about the movements of the fighters from their home countries to the combat fields, the project studies the role of social, religious and economic indexes that might influence the reality of each individual and that could be crucial in driving the need to look for equilibrium elsewhere missing.

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The countries of origin are placed horizontally by the distance from the fighters' common destination. The size measures the country's Muslim population while the vertical distribution represents the country's overall population. This way, a comparison between the worldwide Muslim communities can be performed by the reader.

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The key elements of the map are the flows of foreign fighters leaving from all the different countries worldwide to merge into one common entity. It is interesting to notice the relation emerging between the size of the flow and the size of the Muslim community per each country. When this ratio is particularly strong, the country is highlighted in stronger hues of red accordingly. The more intense the color, the more foreign fighters over the country's Muslim population.

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The available data from The Soufan Group also provides information about the official number of returnees from the combat field back to their home country. This movement of people is visualized with the yellow flow that leaves the original destination and goes back into the respective countries.

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  • on-their-way-legend

Density Design final synthesis studio

Design process

The project was developed during the 2016/2017 edition of DensityDesign final synthesis studio, with the aim of learning to observe and represent controversial phenomena from different perspectives, and to visually communicate them to different publics.

The topic of radicalization was chosen among the “Societal challenges” identified by the European Union as the most urgent. Throughout the project and research we narrowed down this macro-topic until we identified the specific controversy of violent religious radicalization in relation to the extremist organization of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Phase 1

Exploring official data

The course was structured in three main phases, each one with the objective of facing the different problems related to information visualization, although through distinctive and different outputs. The data visualization on the journey of foreign fighters was the final output of the first phase of the course, in which we were asked to choose, use and communicate official data sources. The design process was greatly supported by the course material and bibliography, as well as direct revisions of the work with the professors. Special attention was given to the design of the visual model of the representation to illustrate our academic learnings of the theory and history of data visualization.

In addition to the visualization, as a team we also designed a complementary website that expands the insights of this research with country-specific contextual information, such as economic, religious and social data. The project is published on DensityDesign: Travel the Distance.

Phase 2

Diving into the web

The second phase was dedicated to the study on data from unstructured digital sources. We were provided with a broad range of different tools to harvest, manipulate and analyze data, and earned a deep understanding on how to directly collect and reuse data. The output of this phase is a significant research website in which we studied the communication strategies of the Islamic State and its resonance in both the media and the public. The main challenge that we faced in this phase was to define the protocols to collect our raw material, sometimes even by building our own codes and tools. The research website is published on DensityDesign: IS a brand.

Phase 3

Visualization for advocacy

The last phase, the third, was the most experimental. The focus was on the public communication of the topic using the data collected in the previous phase, creating an installation that allows the guests to physically “enter” the dataset. The way we designed the installation, creates engagement within the visitor at first sight and provides a shocking revelation at the entrance, which becomes the narrative key for the unfolding storytelling through which the results of our research are delivered. The installation includes data-posters, data-video and data-audio pieces as well as physical data-sculptures to be touched and explored by hand. To see the project that we deisgned and built for this phase, please visit the mini-site: JOIN US.

DensityDesign Research Lab website

Tech Specs

Print: 58 × 28 cm (22.8 × 11 in)


Serena Del Nero
Marco Mezzadra
Claudia Pazzaglia
Alessandro Riva
Alessandro Zotta

Visual Data

Corriere della Sera – La Lettura

On December 31st, 2016, the visualization was published on Corriere della Sera – La Lettura #266, the Sunday cultural supplement of the first Italian newspaper. The map is featured in the Visual Data section together with an article by Lorenzo Cremonesi.

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  • on-their-way-la-lettura-266

Feature interview

Market Cafe Magazine — Issue 2

In July 2017, the work on the journey of foreign fighters was published on the second issue of Market Cafe Magazine along with a feature interview focused on the importance of collaborating in a multidisciplinary team. We also talked about our design process and how an academic piece became "Best of Show" at the Malofiej Awards. Other authors featured on MCM Issue 2 are Paolo Ciuccarelli, David Hunter, SPIN Unit, Jonas Parnow, Maral Pourkazemi.

Get your copy here (they are hand-numbered!)

Market Cafe Magazine is a London-based independent magazine about data visualization. It features stories of exceptional people and mind-blowing works.
Created by Tiziana Alocci and Piero Zagami.

  • Publication on Market Cafe Magazine Issue 2
  • Publication on Market Cafe Magazine Issue 2

Pamplona, Spain

Malofiej 25 Awards

On March 31st, 2017, the visualization was awarded at the prestigious Malofiej International Infographic Awards with Best of Show in print and an additional gold medal in the category World and Nations. 1.334 entries from 134 organizations in 31 countries participated in the contest. Best of Show in the online category was won by The New York Times.

"The Malofiej Awards have since 1993 given recognition to the best infographics published in print and on-line across the globe. Every March an international jury meets for nearly four days at the School of Communication at the University of Navarra in Pamplona (Spain). They select those works worthy of gold, silver or bronze medals from among dozens of entries submitted to the competition."malofiejgraphics.com

  • Malofiej International Infographic Awards BEST OF SHOW Ceremony

Video of the Awards Ceremony

London, UK

Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards 2017

On October 19th, 2017, the visualization was shortlisted in the Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards, which celebrates excellence and beauty in the state-of-the-art of information visualization around the globe.

The piece is running with "the creme de la creme of visualization & infographics". Winners will be announced on November 28th, 2017. — informationisbeautifulawards.com


Soon to be announced

The visualization has been selected for a special international exhibition. Details of place and dates will be announced soon.

  • “That infographics on #ISIS foreign fighters & returnees is such masterful piece of artwork: comprehensive, accessible, entertaining. More nuanced than many reports on #terrorism.”

    Boris Toucas, visiting fellow at CSIS
  • “The Grand Prix of students from Polytechnic University of Milan
    impressed me the most.


    I am strongly impressed by the personal acquaintance with their leader Paolo Ciuccarelli and I consider this award to be his significant achievement.


    It contains several bold experimental moves. I’m glad that it does not seem to me alone that the search for new data visualization solutions should continue, despite the simplification trend in favor of the speed of information consumption.”

    — Alexey Novichkov, Head of the TASS Infographic Studio


Malofiej [ENG], Corriere della Sera and The New York Times win Best of Show award

Corriere della Sera [ITA], Malofiej Awards: the Best Infographic of 2016 is of "la Lettura"
Premi Malofiej: la migliore infografica del 2016 è de «la Lettura» (original title)
by Cecilia Bressanelli

WIRED [VIDEO] [ITA], Five Roles of Design in the Transformation of Data and Information
Cinque ruoli del design nella trasformazione del dato e dell'informazione (original title)
by Paolo Ciuccarelli

Visualising data [ENG], Best of the Visualisation Web – March 2017
by Andy Kirk

5W INFOGRAPHICS [ENG], All the online winners of the Malofiej Infographics Awards
by Juan Velasco

Politecnico di Milano [ITA] Design Department [ITA], First Prize for the Data Visualization designed by "Density Design" students
Primo premio per la visualizzazione dati realizzata dagli studenti del «Density Design» (original title)

Diario de Navarra [ESP], "Corriere della Sera" and "The New York Times" conquer Malofiej
'Corriere della Sera' y 'The New York Times' ganan en los Malofiej (original title)

Mangiatori di cervelli [ITA], Italians: Champions in Infographics
Italiani campioni d’infografiche (original title)

VC.RU [RU] [ENG] [ITA], Malofiej 2017
«Это признание того, что мы занимаем прочную позицию в мировом интерактивном дизайне» (original title)
by Alexey Novichkov

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