On Their Way to Syria: the Journey of Foreign Fighters

On Their Way

The Journey of Foreign Fighters



In a nutshell

In the context of understanding the complex phenomenon of violent religious radicalization, the map details the journey of ISIS’ foreign fighters to and from the territories of the Caliphate. In addition to public available data about their journey, the map depicts the distance of each country from the destination, its total population, and Islamic population.


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.

Tech Specs

Print: 58 × 28 cm (22.8 × 11 in)


Serena Del Nero
Marco Mezzadra
Claudia Pazzaglia
Alessandro Riva
Alessandro Zotta

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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

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 leading Italian newspaper. The map is featured in the Visual Data section together with an article by Lorenzo Cremonesi.

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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, ES

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 November 28th, 2017, the visualization was awarded at the Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards with Gold in the category Current Affairs & Politics.
It also won Studio of the Year for DensityDesign, where the map was created.

"The Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards celebrate excellence and beauty of information visualization around the globe."informationisbeautifulawards.com

  • Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards STUDIO OF THE YEAR Ceremony

Boston, MA

The Art of Networks III Exhibition

From January 13, 2018 to March 12, 2018, the visualization will be on display at The Art of Networks III exhibition, held at the Northeastern University in Boston, MA. The Art of Networks III was organized by Isabel Meirelles (OCAD University, Toronto, Canada) and is presented in conjunction with CompleNet 2018 – 9th Conference on Complex Networks.

"This exhibition, presents a dynamic cross section of data visualizations created over the past three years. Selected by a program committee, these visualizations were devised by leading research labs and studios around the world that are producing some of the most innovative work in this area."Northeastern University, Center for the Arts

More information on The Art of Networks website.

  • “Masterful piece of artwork: comprehensive, accessible, entertaining. More nuanced than many reports on terrorism.”

    — Boris Toucas, visiting fellow at security think tank CSIS
  • “Hours of fun to be had making country comparisons.”

    — Jessica Kelly, Documentary filmmaker
  • “It's an exemplary case for thought mapping open source content.”

    — Hatteras Hoops, Geographic scientist
  • “The overall balance of the design is masterful.”


    “Because of its novelty it’s not an automatically easy map to read. But there are clear instructions and the image demands the reader’s attention, and rewards repeat viewing.”

    — Brian Romer, Data Visualization Designer
  • “Citazione a Minard eccellente.”

    — Luigi Farrauto, Map Designer
  • “Excellente et très claire infographie.”

    — Jules Grandin, Cartographer, head of the Infographic Service at Les Echos via Le Monde
  • “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


All images on this site are Copyright © 2018 Alessandro Zotta or their respective copyright holders. Do not use without permission.