The Islamic State has drawn its fighting force not just from the ranks of the angry, uneducated and unemployed but instead has found great success in attracting well-educated millennial foreign recruits driven less by religious purity and more by a desire to fight Iranian-backed Shiite groups, according to the group’s own internal data of its recruits from Saudi Arabia.
A sweeping 40-page report by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies challenges the notion that the Islamist terror group, also known as ISIS, expanded by attracting disenfranchised foreign young men with few skills who lack legitimate opportunities in society.
The study, which examined recruitment data on some 759 Saudis who joined ISIS in 2013 and 2014, also found the majority of the terrorist fighters “are not well-versed in religious knowledge” — a conclusion that stands in stark contrast to the notion that the militants see themselves as being on a religious crusade.
The report is based on leaked ISIS recruiting documents. Researchers say the report is the most in-depth look to date at the group’s foreign terrorist fighters (FTF), the “interview” process would-be fighters go through, and the social and sectarian motivations that fuel their decision to sign up.
New details on the makeup of the ISIS force come as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria, where they had been leading a multilateral coalition to defeat the organization. In ordering the withdrawal, President Trump argued that ISIS had been fully defeated, though lawmakers, regional analysts and military officials have said the group remains a serious challenge and could reconstitute itself quickly.
If Islamic State mounts a comeback, it will likely look to countries such as Saudi Arabia — which also produced 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001 — for new recruits. And those recruits could again be pulled from all levels of Saudi society, the data suggest.
One of the key passages in the report shatters the idea that ISIS fighters lack education or intelligence.
“This group of Saudi FTFs was not educationally underachieving; thus, it would be difficult to claim that they suffer from lack of opportunities or an absence of upward mobility,” a portion of the report reads. “The greater political turmoil and instability and the heightened sectarianism in the region explains more about the radicalization of Saudi foreign terrorist fighters than mere socioeconomic or pure religious ideology.”
More broadly, the Faisal Center report found that — unlike previous generations of terrorists — the Saudi ISIS fighters aren’t driven by a years-long hatred of the West, or even by resentment of U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
“The sheer volume of novice jihadists joining IS in the recent period is intriguing because it shows that the radicalization process of the vast majority of those FTFs has been the result of current and new events and circumstances, rather than old experiences,” the study said.
Instead, Saudi ISIS recruits are more driven by the sectarian, Shia-versus-Sunni violence in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The report found that fighting against Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups in Syria is a primary driver for Saudi militants who joined Islamic State. Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which also is battling ISIS. also was a motivation for Saudis to join the jihadist group.
The study found that ISIS intentionally exploits Saudis’ desire to fight Shiite groups and has found it to be an effective tactic.
ISIS “tailors its narrative and approach to the specific historical and social contexts of targeted countries,” the report said.
Islamic State’s own records demonstrate that Saudis who join ISIS often are more educated than average citizens. Forty-six percent of the Saudi FTFs examined in the survey have received a secondary level of education, compared to just 35 percent of the Saudi population as a whole.
Forty-five percent of Saudi ISIS recruits have an undergraduate degree, compared to just 41 percent of the general population inside the country.
Just 15 percent of the Saudi fighters who joined ISIS were unemployed, according to the study. More than 30 percent were students, and another 20 percent held private-sector jobs. Seven percent came from the country’s military or police forces.
Specialists say the figures aren’t surprising. The Islamic State’s targeting of young, educated Saudis — more than 70 percent of Saudi ISIS fighters are between the ages of 20 and 29 — falls in line with the relatively sophisticated approach the group has taken.
“They conduct interviews [and ask], ‘What are your skills?’” said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.
“‘Do you know how to build bombs? Do you know how to do small-engine repair? Do you know how to do social media? Do you know how to protect us from cyberattacks?’” said Mr. Pregent, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “There’s an interview process. ISIS was simply looking for talent.”
Those who lacked talent or education, he said, were often trained and given guns.
“If you didn’t have talent, you’re cannon fodder,” Mr. Pregent said.
Targeted recruiting likely will remain a top priority for the group moving forward. U.S. military officials have said that the number of foreign fighters traveling from Saudi Arabia or other nations to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS has dropped dramatically — now about 100 men each month, down from nearly 1,500 at the group’s height in 2014 and 2015.
But in place of a massive fighting force, ISIS is changing its approach and actively seeking members who can use social media to inspire “lone wolf” attacks around the world.
Having all but lost its territorial “caliphate,” Islamic State also is becoming less centralized, putting a premium on members who understand the internet, social media and covert communications.
“ISIS is already evolving to implement a more diffuse model [for] command-and-control and operations,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said late last year.
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