March 11, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Foreign Fighters Exposed

• A treasure trove of detail on foreign fighters joining the Islamic State has become available

• The records appear genuine and offer a considerable volume of information

• The records will be of great value to intelligence and security services, as well as to law enforcement officers investigating returnees

• They will also provide insights into Islamic State recruitment efforts and recruits for the period that the records relate to.


In January, a Syrian opposition paper, Zaman al-Wasl, announced that it had obtained 2,000 documents dating back to 2013 and early 2014 that provided the names and details of fighters with the so-called Islamic State. On March 8, it made some of these files available online, providing personal details of 1,736 Islamic State recruits from over 40 countries. The forms contain real and assumed names, dates of birth, nationalities, and even information on awareness of Sharia (generally very basic) and the recruit’s desired role within the Islamic State (very few who expressed interest in becoming suicide bombers). Authorities in Germany have announced that they too have seen these files, as have intelligence and law enforcement services elsewhere. But the haul is of far wider interest and may be even larger than thought. On March 9, a British TV channel, Sky News, said it had obtained the records of 22,000 fighters from over 50 countries from a defector from the Islamic State. The new information follows exactly the same format as the Zaman al-Wasl documents.

Although there have been questions raised about the authenticity of the records—for example some of the logos are unusual and there are other discrepancies and variations from verified Islamic State documents—there is enough in the papers that is clearly accurate to suggest that they are genuine. Some sloppiness and duplication appears to result more from Zaman al-Wasl’s method of collation, and the decision to delete some information before posting online, than from any bureaucratic ineptitude on the part of the Islamic State's Office of Border Administration, which compiled the files. The documents therefore provide extraordinary insight into Islamic State recruitment in the early days of the organization’s growth and will offer considerable opportunity for detailed analysis, in addition to providing useful evidence in the investigation and prosecution of returnees. 

The records precede the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State and its presumptuous declaration of the Caliphate. At the time they were compiled, the organization was still known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. It was in direct competition with its Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as with the rest of al-Qaeda, being finally expelled from the organization in February 2014. Furthermore, the Islamic State was relatively inactive in Syria except in attacking other rebel groups before taking control of Raqqa in August 2013. It seemed to offer little to non-Iraqis. By looking into the background of these early joiners, it should be possible to draw conclusions about the nature of the Islamic State's appeal and the sort of person that is vulnerable to its allure. By interviewing other members of their families, it may be possible to identify the particular factors that made them decide to join the Islamic State, as well as elements of their pre-departure behavior that might have signaled an advanced state of radicalization.

Although the title of the form that each new recruit filed translates as ‘the personal identifiers of the Mujahid,’ the records so far revealed are almost all of new recruits who crossed the Turkish border rather than, for example, defectors from other rebel groups or Syrian or Iraqi members of the Islamic State. As the new arrivals must give the name of the person vouching for them, in addition to their own details, it should be possible to identify key recruiters and hotbeds of recruitment. The forms also record levels of education (generally low) and previous jobs (usually unskilled, if any), as well as other countries visited and any previous experience fighting (very rare). This too will help in understanding who was attracted to join the Islamic State and from where, though the motivation of recruits before mid-2014 may have had more to do with opposition to the Syrian and Iraqi governments than a simple desire to join the Islamic State. 

The forms are fascinatingly bureaucratic, and perhaps typical of the Islamic State, which now boasts about the number of traffic tickets it issues and presents its administrative reach as evidence of its success at state-building. But they are not an Islamic State invention. Al-Qaeda records discovered in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002 showed a very similar attempt to collect personal details, as did a list of 700 recruits to al-Qaeda in Iraq found in Sinjar, Iraq in 2007. The Islamic State is not a disorganized and haphazard group of fanatics. It has an administrative structure that has rooted it into society and will therefore take some effort to remove.


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