Terrorists Today Say They Don’t Want to Blow Themselves Up As Much
Personnel records of foreign fighters from ISIS and Al Qaeda reveal changes over time
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The Islamic State’s gruesome propaganda videos are widely credited for helping the terrorist group lure recruits on a global scale, and the United States has singled out the purveyors in targeted killings.
The first part of that paragraph is true — but simplistic. The Islamic State, or ISIS, only began consistently propagandizing to foreign audiences in 2014, mere months before the fall of Mosul. The militant group was already expanding quickly and had seized the Syrian city of Raqqa, which became their de facto capital, a year before.
In fact, the Islamic State had begun seeing hundreds of foreign recruits arrive in Syria every month beginning in mid-2013, a phenomenon which grew faster immediately after the group seized Mosul in June 2014.
More disturbingly, the Islamic State had become globally attractive on a scale far beyond that of its earlier, Al Qaeda-affiliated permutation which fought the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006–2007. The Islamic State appealed to a diverse following, with better skills … and the foreign recruits told their terrorist handlers they weren’t as interested in blowing themselves up.
That’s information gleaned from a comparison between captured personnel records dating between 2006 and 2007 from Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliates, and similar Islamic State files dating between 2011 and 2014 which were leaked to NBC News in 2016. Those files are the focus of a December 2016 report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The Islamic State keeps extensive records detailing its foreign recruits’ identities and backgrounds. The terror group writes down names, origins, employment histories and what potential fighters would prefer to do after joining, much like a military recruiter would.
For instance, both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State asked recruits whether they wanted to serve as a fighter or a suicide bomber, although the Islamic State added a third category of “suicide fighter,” or militants who rig themselves to explode and fight to the death.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, the Islamic State’s recruits appear less explicitly willing to be kamikazes. A majority — 58 percent — of the Al Qaeda foreign recruits sought to become suicide bombers in 2006–2007 compared to five percent of the Islamic State recruits, according to the report.
Another six percent of the ISIS recruits told their handlers that they wanted to become suicide fighters. That leaves 89 percent who said they wanted to simply fight. But the strategic goals differ today. Islamic State wants to hold ground, and it can’t do that if the bulk of its army blows itself up.
“One important reason is that the two iterations of the organization operated in vastly different environments,” suggest the report’s authors, Brian Dodwell, Daniel Milton and Don Rassler.
“While the Islamic State holds significant territory, has self-declared the creation of its caliphate, and has been trying to build a functioning military and government, AQI was an insurgent group that held no real territory and struggled for survival against the United States, a superior military foe.”
To be sure, the fact that recruits mostly answered “fighter” doesn’t mean Iraqi and Syrian soldiers fighting on the battlefield can let their guard down. Suicide attacks are a pervasive ISIS tactic, and what a recruit says he wants to do can change. But the Islamic State — to a greater extent than Al Qaeda in Iraq — appears to rely more on suicide bombers to exploit vulnerabilities during fighting.
The situation is changing. Chances are the Islamic State will lose Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the biggest one under its control. What it does afterwards is the bedeviling question for the coalition’s war planners, who worry the militants could go underground and revert to a 2006–2007-style insurgency.
The Islamic State’s records also show a wider array of support. This is hardly news, but the specifics are very interesting … and concerning. Saudi foreign fighters have diminished as a proportion — 40 percent down to 19 percent — given so many other recruits flowing in from around the world.
At the same time, Saudi recruits began arriving from more locations within Saudi Arabia. “While there are still geographic pockets, or higher-density flow areas, within each country, the pool of people who are joining the Islamic State is generally more geographically representative across more countries,” the authors write.
Dodwell, Milton and Rassler note there are differences in how the terror groups kept records. The Islamic State in Iraq — the Islamic State’s Al Qaeda-linked predecessor — and the Mujahideen Shura Council were more interested in how much money their foreign recruits had.
Perhaps they needed the cash.
By contrast, the Islamic State recorded greater details about its recruits, including more precise occupational backgrounds, and its files stretched over a longer span and became more detailed over time. Thus, the authors caution that direct comparisons have their limits.
There are also differences between countries. While Saudi recruits came from more places within their country, they are around the same age as the Saudis who left in 2006–2007 were — disproportionately men in their twenties. This could mean many of the Saudi recruits were first-time fighters in both cases in a kind of repeating cycle of radicalization.
This is not the case for foreign fighters as a whole. In fact, the average age for an Islamic State recruit in general — 31 years old — is older than foreign fighters from 10 years ago. The age range grew wider, and some recruits were reaching retirement age when they arrived.
Again, that indicates wider support in more countries, allowing the Islamic State to draw from a more diverse pool of recruits. And no two countries are the same.
Tunisians comprised the Islamic State’s second largest foreign fighter contingent with 634 recruits, or 15 percent of the foreign fighter total during the period, according to the report. A decade ago in Iraq, Tunisians comprised fewer than half that. Dodwell, Milton and Rassler attribute this to an opening and surge in support for Islamism in Tunisia following that country’s 2011 revolution.
Even how recruits travel has changed, with mid-sized groups becoming less common in favor of traveling solo or in large groups … with families in the mix.
“Overall, the size of the Islamic State recruiting pool provides for a larger number of occupational backgrounds present and therefore more diverse resources available to Islamic State leaders,” the authors write in the Combating Terrorism Center report.
“Due to this larger pool, there is a greater number of ‘interesting’ occupations with more experience and exposure to what one might describe as sensitive industries, like the commercial aviation sector, or industries that could also provide pathways to future Islamic State attacks.”
That could also help explain the increasing sophistication of Islamic State propaganda that spread around the world in 2014. The report mentions that several recruits listed their occupations as being related to technology and the media. A civil war in Syria and a weakened, politically-divided Iraq was a ripe location to apply those skills.