Islamic State: Foreign Fighter Trends
Jun 21 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) – Thanks to Edward Snowden dumping sensitive data on to the net, there now exists more accurate estimates on foreign fighters recruited by the Islamic State (IS). Indeed, going by The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point (United States Military Academy) recently made available a report titled ‘The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail’ which provides data of some 4,600 foreign fighters recruited between early 2013 and 2014. This study which is a compilation of 4018 Mujahid Data forms, 2 Excel files (with 155 individuals entered), Exit records (31 files, 431 individuals) and 15 miscellaneous files provide a pattern of recruitment, which interestingly points to something rather disturbing, i.e. Europeans are signing up in alarming numbers, mostly from smaller countries like Belgium and Denmark. We are talking continental Europe here and the IS has successfully recruited from East and West and the Balkans.
What has become clear from the data presented is that the IS recruits from over 70 countries and that means the global workforce IS commands brings with them different skills and capabilities. The educational backgrounds of foreign fighters vary widely and the group has benefitted enormously as most of the fighters have received higher education. This means that the group is actively “head hunting” for more than fighters, it is recruiting “individuals with specific educational, professional, or military backgrounds that might prove useful to the group in the future.” The average age of the foreign fighter is 26-27, but what should be noted here is that IS does not recruit based on age, rather on specific skills sets that these foreign citizens bring to the group. As pointed out in the report, information on 12 individuals born in the ’50s (two apparently are French citizens) “demonstrated relatively significant professional experience, to include multiple engineers, teachers, business owner, and a government employee (from Saudi Arabia).
All this points to IS’s efforts to recruit more than suicide bombers. We are looking at a divergent group of people who have skills linked to governance, business aptitude and technical knowhow. The IS has recruited heavily amongst people with IT background, especially those having media and communications background, which include amongst others, having knowledge in computer design and engineering, networks, programming, telecommunications, and website design. This would explain the savvy propaganda material coming out of the IS social media factory that make even the most gruesome acts of terror appealing or horrifying depending on the audience.
The IS has “facilitators” who travel widely to recruit. The data presented provides the name of top five border facilitators, viz. Abu-Muhammad al-Shimali who facilitated some 31 percent of all foreign fighter recruits (1,306) and the other four Abu-al-Bara’ al Shimali, Abu-Mansur al-Maghribi, Abu-Ilyas al-Maghribi and Abu-‘Ali-al-Turki combined recruiting some 637 fighters. The US government has offered a US$5 million reward for al-Shimali who has been identified as the IS’s Border Chief and following the Paris attacks is now chief accused for helping those who carried out the Paris operation to travel to France. Although IS allows for recruits to select their area of preference (suicide, frontline fighter), a mere 12 percent opted for suicide missions and that can perhaps be attributed to the fact that today, IS commands significant territory. By looking at these patterns, it would appear that the Islamic State is looking into the future where the “caliphate” that can successfully be governed. Hence, the shift is away from one-way missions (suicide bomber) to a combat role that allows for greater survivability.
So where does that leave countries at the receiving end of IS’s actions? IS has emerged as the first truly multi-national Islamic militant organisation that can and does strike across continents, many European countries are finding out the hard way that their counter-terrorism efforts are sorely lacking. In the aftermath of the Belgian bombings in March, it took authorities four months to locate Salah Abdeslam in the neighbourhood he grew up in. Belgium’s plight in combating terrorism is not unique. These nations have never faced anything as deadly as the IS which has successfully recruited fighters with prior combat experience, fighters who blend in with the local populace who are well educated and sophisticated in outward appearance.
As government agencies go back to the drawing board, whether in Europe or Asia, the message is clear. There has to be cooperation among agencies and countries. The IS apparently has mobilised some 400 operatives on the European continent. We have little idea of its operations in the Indian subcontinent. And there lies the danger. Bangladesh has been witness to rising militancy problems. Although we are informed there is no IS presence in Bangladesh and the killings have been carried out by our own home-grown outfits, what we should remember is that IS in all respects is the world’s first truly global jihadist movement with recruits from 70 nations. There is no room for complacency when it comes to our national security and it would be ill advised to sit back and relax.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh