Report: ISIL expanded on Al Qaida’s appeal, attracting fighters and adherents from 50 nations

by WorldTribune Staff, December 22, 2016

From the time of its founding by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) presented itself to potential jihadists as a more appealing version of Al Qaida.

In a new report, the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, examined actual personnel records from the Islamic State and compared them to predecessor Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which al-Baghdadi also headed.

Among ISIL’s ranks are lawyers, engineers, police officers and computer technicians. /Reuters

The major difference between the two, the report found, is “the enticement offered by the Islamic State terrorist army. AQI was a less-appealing, cell-structured insurgent organization.”

Fighters from 50 different countries have joined ISIL since 2014. The U.S. estimates the terror organization’s strength at about 20,000 in Iraq and Syria, excluding affiliates in Libya, the Egyptian Sinai, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other areas.

“The fact that this totals 50 countries is a sobering reminder of the global nature of the foreign fighter problem faced in the context of the Islamic State,” the West Point report said.

ISIL, in large part thanks to its social media propaganda machine, was able to recruit combatants and fill its rosters with “not just the poor and abandoned but the educated and presumedly prosperous,” security correspondent Rowan Scarborough wrote for The Washington Times on Dec. 21.

“The arrivals included lawyers, engineers, police officers and computer technicians — the professionals needed to construct leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s warped vision of a so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.”

ISIL’s roster included 629 businessmen, 76 police or military, 103 skilled white-collar workers including lawyers and engineers, 69 information technology experts and 28 media professionals, the West Point report said.

“Overall, the size of the Islamic State recruiting pool provides for a larger number of occupational [backgrounds] present and therefore more diverse resources available to Islamic State leaders.”

While AQI’s jihadists came almost exclusively from the Middle East and North Africa, ISIL attracted recruits from France, Russia, the U.S. and several other Western nations.

ISIL’s professionally diverse roster also makes it more difficult for the West to create a profile of likely recruits, the report said.

“In some ways, knowing less about ‘who’ to look for complicates and problematizes counterterrorism actions that aim to prevent recruitment and radicalization in the first place as well as future attacks at latter stages,” the West Point center said.

Also, while AQI required recruits to sign contracts agreeing to become suicide bombers, ISIL did not appear to demand such ironclad commitments. It did allow suicide bombers to pick the geographic location at which they wanted to attack.

The report authors say a surprising finding is that Tunisia, the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring and a country that has avoided civil war, became the largest contributor to Islamic State per capita.

“The pre-revolution [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali regime’s tight control over religious activities meant that with the regime’s collapse there were no influential religious institutions to fill the void, leaving a religious vacuum that radical groups quickly attempted to fill,” the study says, referring to Tunisia’s ousted president. “In addition, the social and economic needs of many Tunisians, especially the youth, were not met by the post-revolution governments.”