It is one of the more vexing problems facing intelligence agencies across much of the world – trying to understand the phenomenon that has caused tens of thousands of people to leave their homes and take up arms for the Islamic State terror group.
But a new analysis of the terror group’s own entry records suggests while those flocking to the self-declared caliphate come from diverse regions and from a variety of socio-economic background, many share a deep-seated resentment of where they live.
And the study suggests it is a sentiment that IS managed to expertly exploit once and could possibly exploit again.
“I think this grievance narrative is a common thread that you can knit across a lot of these places,” said Nate Rosenblatt, an independent researcher and author of the New America Foundation report, All Jihad is Local.
“It's not just that these frustrations drive people to go join ISIS in these areas but that ISIS also actively recruits based on that same narrative,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group.
Rosenblatt looked at more than 3,500 foreign fighter registration forms collected by IS officials along the Turkish-Syrian border from mid-2013 to mid-2014, and then leaked by an IS defector in 2016.
At first glance, they seemed to confirm just how little many of the fighters had in common.
“Foreign fighters from Bahrain are generally very young in this data set. They are on average 19 or 20 years old at the time of their joining,” Rosenblatt said. “There are also very old fighters coming from China.”
But as Rosenblatt broke down the demographics further, looking at the provinces within a country that were sending the most fighters to IS, a trend began to emerge.
“All the provinces that we looked at had some history of protesting the central government or even exhibited some signs of separatist movements,” he said. “I think a lot of people in this sample see the Islamic State as an alternative state to the one that they currently live in.”
Smoke rises after airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in a village east of Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2016.
Other studies have drawn similar conclusions.
A study published this past April by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, called The Caliphate’s Global Workforce and based possibly on some of the same records, found “many foreigners are presumably travelling to the Islamic State to live, not die.”
Only the New America study found that IS was not content to simply rely on selling some generalized vision of an Islamic utopia. Instead, Rosenblatt said, the terror group seemed to focus on each group’s particular set of grievances “and create a lot of very local advertisements.”
One example is how IS marketed itself to China’s Uighurs.
“The Uighur population has been oppressed and marginalized substantially. Head scarves or beard growth are heavily restricted,” he said.
“They'll show classrooms for younger children learning about Islam and that's almost completely not allowed in China,” Rosenblatt said.
Not surprisingly, the IS entry records indicate “people from China are much more likely to travel with their families,” he said.
Similar patterns emerged with Bahrain and other countries.
While the sample size is small, there could be implications for the larger foreign fighter problem, which according to U.S. intelligence estimates has now encompassed more than 38,200 fighters from over 120 countries.
Intelligence officials have long worried that poor governance combined with tensions could create safe havens for extremist groups.
But Rosenblatt believes the same conditions may just as easily lead to “centers of recruitment for extremist groups who establish safe havens in other places.”
“It suggests that ISIS, or a future group like ISIS, will still have ample fodder from which to recruit,” he said.