The Islamic State drew far more fighters from far more countries than its predecessor, a steady flow from far-flung global regions that helps explain the terrorists’ commitment to mass murder and destruction once they arrived to create a ballyhooed promised land.
The Islamic State recruit rosters were filled with not just the poor and abandoned but the educated and presumedly prosperous. The arrivals included lawyers, engineers, police officers and computer technicians — the professionals needed to construct leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s warped vision of a so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
In a new report, the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, examined actual personnel records from the Islamic State and compared them to predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which al-Baghdadi also headed.
Right off the bat, the big difference between the two is the enticement offered by the Islamic State terrorist army. It began taking territory in 2011 in Iraq and Syria, while AQI was a less-appealing, cell-structured insurgent organization.
In all, the Islamic State has drawn fighters from 50 different countries as of 2014. Today the U.S. estimates its strength at about 20,000 in Iraq and Syria, excluding satellite armies that have arisen in Libya, the Egyptian Sinai, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places.
“The fact that this totals 50 countries is a sobering reminder of the global nature of the foreign fighter problem faced in the context of the Islamic State,” the West Point analysis says.
The AQI fighters came almost exclusively from the Middle East and North Africa. Few came from Europe.
In one sample file, the Islamic State had attracted 126 persons from France and 210 from Russia. China provided none to AQI but 163 recruits to Islamic State.
The 2011-14 span was the critical time frame for the Sunni extremist Islamic State. While the Syrian civil war created ungoverned areas and Iraq was minus U.S. troops, Islamic State grew and spread across both countries, including its invasion of Iraq and capture of large stretches of ground in the west and north.
President Obama ordered troops and aircraft back into Iraq. A counter-Islamic State coalition has taken back most towns and cities in Iraq, while American-trained Syria rebels are moving toward Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital.
By most accounts, Islamic State terrorists are fighting to keep its major Iraqi prize — the city of Mosul — underscoring the commitment of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to join the terrorist army.
A snapshot of Islamic State arrivals showed a diverse cross-section of professions able to create a whole new Islamic society. There were 629 businessmen, 76 police or military, 103 skilled white-collar workers including lawyers and engineers, 69 information technology experts and 28 media professionals.
“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 report says.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, was able to construct a far-reaching social media propaganda operation. Postings, including Twitter messages and online magazines, sold Islamic State as an Islamic caliphate destined to conquer the world.
Islamic State also put together a diverse and complex network of entry points into Syria, and the group located its so-called capital in northeast Raqqa. The records showed at least seven entry points to cross the border, making successful infiltration more likely.
“From a counterterrorism perspective, this means that stemming or stopping the flow of foreign Islamic State recruits was a much harder and more complex task during that time frame,” the study says.
Islamic State’s professionally diverse terrorism force also makes it more difficult for the West to create a profile of likely recruits.
“In some ways, knowing less about ‘who’ to look for complicates and problematizes counterterrorism actions that aim to prevent recruitment and radicalization in the first place as well as future attacks at latter stages,” the West Point center says.
The center looked at more than 3,000 files that contained fighters’ hometowns and arrival dates. Many liked to travel in groups. The cities that produced significant group arrivals were Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Benghazi, Libya; Moscow; and Paris.
AQI required recruits to sign contracts agreeing to become suicide bombers. Those attacks were its hallmarks, along with car bombs.
Islamic State did not appear to demand such ironclad commitments. It did allow suicide bombers to pick the geographic location at which they wanted to self-explode.
The report authors say a surprising finding is that Tunisia, the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring and a country that has avoided civil war, became the largest contributor to Islamic State per capita.
“The prerevolution [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali regime’s tight control over religious activities meant that with the regime’s collapse there were no influential religious institutions to fill the void, leaving a religious vacuum that radical groups quickly attempted to fill,” the study says, referring to Tunisia’s ousted president. “In addition, the social and economic needs of many Tunisians, especially the youth, were not met by the post-revolution governments.”
The West Point study is titled “Then and Now: Comparing the Flow of Foreign Fighters to AQI and the Islamic State.”
The authors relied on two sets of records. For AQI, the military captured the files on a raid near the Iraqi town of Sinjar. A collection of 4,119 Islamic State personnel records were provided by a defector to NBC News.
“ISIS appeals to ideologues, and that group includes some very smart and skilled people,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and terrorism expert. “Just think about the high school geek who was a wiz at science but gravitated to some off-the-wall ideas. That’s the same outcome for some who embrace ISIS Salafist orthodoxy and especially the Islamic prophetic view that an ISIS-like caliphate would usher in the end times and the return of the Islamic Mahdi.”