A trove of leaked ISIS documents, which reveal the identities and profiles of more than 4,000 ISIS militants recruited in the period 2013-14, has been hailed as a “devastating” boon for those working with or alongside the respective fields of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization.
Until now, counter-violent-extremism (CVE) experts were constrained to building personality case studies and profiles of “jihadist” terrorists on an ad-hoc or piecemeal basis i.e. usually when the identity of a terrorist was revealed following an actual terrorist attack.
This trove, however, constitutes arguably the largest dump of recruiting information for a single terrorist group. This leak reveals the names, nationalities, education level, employment history, social background, and religiosity of 4,188 ISIS recruits.
Based on the data entry documents, a typical ISIS recruit is a 26 year old, single, male, with a high school diploma. Interestingly, Western recruits are younger in age than non-Western ISIS fighters. While a majority appears to be “well educated,” an overwhelming majority was either unemployed or underemployed at the time of joining the self-declared caliphate.
Even more interesting is the fact that more than 70 percent of ISIS recruits self-described their understanding of Islam and Islamic law as “basic,” which corroborates with a swathe of earlier leaks, interviews, and investigations into the Islamic State. After all, the number one selling book for would-be jihadists leaving Europe for Iraq or Syria is Islam for Dummies.
But beyond that – these documents are not only a vindication for those who have long argued that violent ‘Islamic’ radicalization is rooted more in a cocktail of terrestrial realities – racism, social failures, identity crises, negative impacts of globalization forces, migration, deprivations, political impotency, etc – than it is in holy texts (Quran) that have an eye for the celestial.
As such, this is an appropriate time for individuals such as former CIA officer and psychiatrist Marc Sagemen, anthropologist Scott Atran, former jihadist Mubin Shaikh, political scientist Robert Pape, Islamist expert Oliver Roy, and a milieu of academics who have dedicated themselves to understanding violent extremism to take a bow. Also, a polite applause for intelligence agencies that long ago dismissed the cultural, typically right wing reactionary, critiques of “jihadist” terrorism.
“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could … be regarded as religious novices,” reads a 2008 classified briefing note on radicalization, prepared by the United Kingdom’s MI5’s behavioral science unit. In fact, the intelligence agency also concluded “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.”
As for the self-described “Muslim reformers” who peddle fear and suspicion to racist audiences and fearful Western governments in return for lucrative speaking gigs, book deals, and taxpayer funded cash – these documents make a mockery of their self-serving efforts to add anything meaningful or substantive to the counter-radicalization debate.
Whether it’s on behalf of the Islamophobia Industry or a cadre of groups that are loosely affiliated with the Israel lobby or a combination of both, the “Muslim reformers” have long argued that what “jihadist” terrorism is simply the product of a literalist reading of Islamic scripture. These reformers posit that the Quran is a ready-made instruction manual for violent extremism. That violence is rooted in their culture, and not socio-economic-political realities and grievances.
These “Muslim reformers” are unable to explain how it is then that more than 70 percent of those joining ISIS have only a “basic” understanding of Islam. They are unable to explain the radicalization paths followed by the Paris attackers and the Brussels bombers. They, instead, engage in empty sloganeering and generalizations.
There is no single path to radicalization, and understanding why someone would want to suddenly become a terrorist is one of the most complex endeavors preoccupying the minds of those who seek to counter narratives that make groups such as ISIS so appealing to far too many.
Ultimately, we are all in this together. This is not a battle between our values and theirs. Muslims are the front line in the fight against global jihad. ISIS and the like don’t threaten Western values and the Western way of life alone; they also threaten the very existence of nearly 1.5 billion Muslims. And we need to star thinking about the fight against jihadist terrorism in these terms. We need to view this as a transnational threat, requiring transnational cooperation.
Ulrich Beck, the prolific social scientist, urges us to deal with global terror in the same way we deal with other transnational threats, such as global warming, infectious viruses, immigration, financial markets, and organized crime. In his column for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes about his recent trip to Senegal – where he spent time in an isolated village located five hours from Dakar. Friedman noticed that among the more than 300 residents, there was an absence of young to middle age men. The ‘missing’ men weren’t killed in war or suddenly by a deadly virus, noted Friedman, but instead had migrated to urban centers in neighboring countries in desperate search for work.
The effects of global warming had turned the once lush farming land of north western Senegal into a dust bowl, thus working aged men are faced with no other option but to abandon their families in the hope of earning enough elsewhere to send money home.
“We are mostly farmers, and we depend on farming, but it is not working now,” the village chief, Ndiougua Ndiaye, explained to Friedman. “After a series of on/off droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, the weather patterns stabilized a bit, until about 10 years ago,” the chief added. Since then, the weather has become hostile to an agricultural existence.
This trend is taking place all across the African continent and the Middle East, and it is creating cultural conflict. Scholars of history will, in time, refer to the current civil war in Syria as the first climate change war. The outbreak of violence there came on the heels of the worst drought to hit Syria in more than 100 years. Mass migration to Syria’s urban centers put strains on an already fragile socio-economic environment. Jobs became harder to find, while the cost of housing, food, and basic necessities skyrocketed. Socio-economic anxieties inevitably lead to political and cultural anxieties that can be exploited by “cultural entrepreneurs” i.e. those who use demonization of the other for the purpose of political gain.
Similar trends are happening in Europe. The “jihadists” who carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels held legitimate socio-economic-political grievances. As second-generation MENA immigrants, they were told by Belgium they didn’t belong in Belgium. When they visited the countries of their ancestry, they were told they didn’t belong there, either. Adding to this crisis of identity is joblessness, alienation, harassment by law enforcement, and confrontations with racism.
ISIS recruiters (“cultural entrepreneurs”) capitalize on these socio-economic anxieties by convincing would-be recruits that their personal malaise is rooted in a European continent that hates them.
Hopefully, however, this treasure trove of leaked ISIS documents is the point where we resist our own “cultural entrepreneurs” (i.e. Muslim reformers) and work towards a more unified response to a truly global threat.
This article was written by CJ Werleman for American Herald Tribune on Apr. 26, 2016. CJ Werleman is a journalist, political commentator, and author of ‘The New Atheist Threat: the Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists.