May 5, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Shifting Profile of an Islamic State Fighter

• As the Islamic State inexorably slides back from a proto-state into an insurgency and then to a terrorist group, the profile of its new members will similarly shift

• The Islamic State has drawn huge numbers of foreigners to Syria and Iraq for many reasons, but holding land in a self-proclaimed caliphate has been its most unique and powerful draw

• Iraqi and Syrian fighters’ motivations to join the group will likely remain the same as its fortunes decline; however, terrorism will be the primary pull factor for other recruits

• Reverting back to a more traditional, albeit very powerful, terrorist group will put the Islamic State in the same dispersed affiliate category as al-Qaeda.


The so-called Islamic State is a phenomenon for many reasons, but its most powerful characteristic is its prolonged hold on territory. The group's vaunted propaganda efforts show countless angles of life in the self-proclaimed caliphate, appealing to the many individual motivations and desires of the tens of thousands who have traveled to Syria and Iraq. The many different reasons for joining the group have resulted in many different types of members. Yet at the heart of each reason for travel were the physical destinations of Raqqa and Mosul. As those physical destinations diminish and become less desirable, the reasons to join the Islamic State will narrow, as will the range of people who wish to join.

Even after a decisive military defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State will not cease to exist. It has slid up and down the terror-insurgent spectrum several times, and will revert back into a powerful terrorist group if denied its territorial holdings. Likewise, the reasons for its local members to fight on will remain, given the persistence of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The nature of the fight will also change; there will be fewer military-style assaults and more terror attacks. The same can be said for the group’s wilayat in LibyaEgypt, and elsewhere; locals, motivated by long-standing local issues, will make up their ranks.

Since its foundation as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group now known as the Islamic State has always drawn large numbers of foreign fighters. During the Iraq War, thousands of fighters from North Africa, as well as those from nearby Saudi Arabia and Jordan, traveled to join the group—then led by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Depending on the extent of the fighting in Iraq and Syria, local fighters will likely continue to join, but in greatly reduced numbers. More dramatic will be the drop in people traveling from Europe and elsewhere. Foreign women and families will join in even smaller numbers as the physical destinations disappear and the aura of the caliphate fades. 

Without its physical hold on territory, the Islamic State will come to resemble al-Qaeda, its more patient rival. After 9/11, al-Qaeda decentralized (though senior leadership was in far more contact with subordinates than once assumed), and its affiliates assumed leading roles on their respective local stages. Al-Qaeda paired global ambitions with local membership and ties to communities, and has held up well against immense pressure. The Islamic State may adopt this approach out of necessity; relying far more on local fighters than foreign ones will be a marked shift in how the group operates. It will continue to be a global threat, given its external operational capabilities in place in Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere, but it will not be a centralized caliphate phenomenon manned by mostly foreign fighters. Its ideology may still have widespread appeal, but its local affiliates (no longer wilayat) will be populated by local or regional terrorists and criminals.


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