An Analysis of 3000 Islamic State Entry Documents

April 7th, 2016 - I have recently had a chance to take a good look at just over 3000 foreign fighter entry documents of the "Islamic State" (IS), a collection that I believe to be partly or even largely identical to the ones that Zaman al-Wasl, SkyNews and several German media have reported about a few weeks ago. I have published an analysis of these documents in today's new issue of DIE ZEIT, the paper I work for. The article can be found online here, but is entirely in German.

For the sake of non-German speakers, I have decided to share my main findings in English here.

I have used two approaches in analyzing the documents. One is a systematic, number-based approach, one is an anecdotal approach. I believe both to be revealing in their own way.

1.- The forms itself 

The forms are standardized and they ask for answers to 23 questions. The IS wants to know about the real name and the kunya of the recruit, they ask for the name of the mother, nationality, date of birth, the blood typ, the point of border crossing, an address, prior Jihad experience and specializations, among other things. Two questions are multiple choice: Does the recruit want to become a) a fighter, b) a suicide bomber or c) an Inghimasi. And the recruit is asked to classify his level of Sharia literacy: a) weak or b) medium or c) student/scholar level. Recruits are also asked for an address or phone number to contact in the case of their deaths. And lastly, there is a column called "comments", which IS cadres have in some cases used to add interesting additional information.

2.- "Statistical" findings

The IS cadres who filled in the forms where not all equally diligent. In many cases, the forms are not fully complete. Also the ways in which answers have been taken down are not 100 per cent coherent. So it can happen that someone who has the kunya "Abu XYZ al-Almani" may not have listed an address in Germany or a German nationality, but a phone number in Tunisia. Is he to be considered a German? And if not: What then?

It is therefor only possible to reach conclusions that cannot be considered hard statistical science. I have nonetheless tried to work the numbers as much as I could.

Here are the most important results:

  • Just under ten per cent offer to die as suicide bombers ("Istishhadi"). Even less want to be an Ighimasi. The vast majority opts to become a "fighter" ("muqatil"). 
  • Roughly three quarters think of their own knowledge of Sharia as "weak". 
  • The large majority of recruits is aged between 20 and 30 and appears to have had no real jobs or jobs that require little training or have had no advanced schooling. 
  • The biggest contingents reflected in the documents are from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, followed by Libya, Morocca and Egypt. 

3.- Anecdotal observations 

The "comments" that IS cadres added are very revealing even if they are very diverse. Each entry consists of a few words only but sometimes feel like a short story, giving us an idea of the personalities attracted to the IS.

Following is a small list of such comments I found particularly interesting:

  • "Used to be with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for 5 years"
  • "Can see very well, even in the night, ma shah Allah!" 
  • This brother came spontaneously after he met other brother at the airport who were on their way here
  • Used to be with Jabhat al-Nusra 
  • Radar operator! 
  • "Important ** has chemical experience"
  • This brother has buried 400 moroccan dirhams in Europa before he travelled here
  • The effects of this brother are meant as a present for the Mujahidin when he dies (these effects are listed as 2 phones and 4000 euros worth of currency)
  • "Has switched to 'suicide bomber'"
  • His parents are to be notified of his death, but without mentioning it was a suicide bombing 
  • "Please tell my father and my mother to forgive me"
  • trained on a 23 cannon 

If one looks at the backgrounds and prior occupations of the recruits, other interesting find can be made. Here are a few examples: 

  • a former Kuwaiti soldier
  • a former Saudi soldier
  • a former Cairo Imam 
  • an ex soccer player
  • an unemployed truck driver with six kids
  • a student of Sharia from an Islamic university 

4.- A careful Assessment 

3.000 out of what are possibly 30.000 IS fighters is a pretty good sample but there may be serious distortions we don't know of and we can't say if our sample is fully representative.

Certainly the sample contains little in the way of sensations, even though known terrorists are among those whose entry forms are available like Mohamed Belkaid, recently killed in a Brussels raid. Much rather, the sample solidifies some of our assumptions.

Further research into these docs is needed, for example in order to find out who travelled to the IS with who, something that is especially interesting in regard to European foreign fighters and the terrorist network they have established between France and Belgium.

The anecdotal observations give un an idea of the spectrum we can find within the IS: veterans of Jihad next to beginners, professionals next to scared people, educated and skilled people next to untrained and probably not very intelligent recruits. Not all of these will turn out to be master warriors, master terrorists or even master administration officials.

I want to conclude this brief post with two quotes. I asked Leah Farrall of Sydney University, a true expert on the history of Jihadism and an author of a great book (The Arabs at War in Afghanistan) for her opinion on the administrative behavior of the IS. Here is what she said:

Al Qaeda bureaucratised the jihad long before Isis, which benefited from inheriting many of its forms and processes when the two split. Poorly organised terrorist groups have short life spans. Al Qaeda turns 30 next year. The mixing of bureaucratised jihadis with former regime elements makes for an even more paperwork driven organisation.

And I asked Thomas Hegghammer of the FFI and Oslo University, who has focused on Foreign Fighters and Jihadist Culture in his work, about what he thinks these anecdotes tell us. He said this:

The files show that the foreigners come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring different skill sets, but they expect the same outcome: death. They also show that IS is combing the recruit population for special skills or connections for use in operations. 

I fully agree with both of them.

Let the debate begin!


Syrian Elephants in the Room

November 29th, 2015 - I acknowledge that the Paris attacks have changed the debate. I understand why France chose to retaliate with air strikes on Raqqa, one of the in fact two capitals of the "Caliphate" the "Islamic State" (IS) pronounced last year. I even get why the German government has decided to support France and all the other countries bombing the IS with reconnaissance capabilities.

However, there still are two elephants in the room when we are discussing fighting the IS, and they ought to be addressed.

The first problematic issue, the first elephant if you so want, is that the IS exists in Syria AND Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen to it that currently most politicians in the West talk and argue as if the Caliphate was a problem that is inextricably linked to the fate of "president" Bashar al-Assad. Well, it is not.  As a matter of fact, consider these two things:

1.- If the IS were to be driven out of all Syrian territory tomorrow, with - for argument's sake -  the help of Putin, Assad, the US, all Arabs: Would the IS be defeated? - Clearly not.

2.- If Assad stays in power or not, how much of a difference does it make in terms of the chances of the IS to survive? - Clearly: very little.

What does that mean? It means this: The political future of Syria and the demise of the IS are in fact two mostly separate issues. I know this is counter-intuitive. But looking at it in this way makes the choices in front of us much easier. We do not need Assad to finish the IS. Period.

Which leads me to the second elephant in the room: The fact that the ongoing discussion of whether there should/might/can be a role for Assad or one of his relatives or proxies in the future as a leader of an interim Syrian government that would in one way or another include opposition forces and at a later point in time hand over power to that opposition seems to be based on the idea that Syria still somehow is a state and will be a single united state in the future.

Well... as much as I would like that as somebody who really loves Syria and the Syrians, I believe we should face the possibility that partition, de facto or de jure, is the more likely scenario. Because here is the thing:

1.- Assad is not going to get all of Syria back.
2.- The opposition is not going to be able to get all of Syria under it's control.

This is not purely a matter of military might. It also has to do with legitimacy. Assad has killed hundreds of thousands, but there are millions who support him inside Syria and wish for him to stay in power. It is a fact. These people are spread over a largely coherent mass of land in the country. Most of the rest of the country (not counting IS territory) is strongly against Assad and will not accept a future tole for him or one of his proxies. He has a lot of actual legitimacy in one part of Syria and almost zero legitimacy in the rest of the country.

To put it another way: What if the question is the wrong one? Should we really be discussing a role for Assad for all of Syria at this point in time? I don't think so. But do those people who staunchly support him have a right to be heard? Well, I am not fond of admitting it, but I think they do. (I am saying that even though I personally think he needs to be sent to The Hague.)

It all boils down to this: What is better, a real ceasefire with a de facto partition? Or an agreement pertaining to the whole of Syria, but one that is going to be so feeble that the likelihood it will just jumpstart another round in this terrible war is rather big?

I know, I know, I haven't even discussed the Kurdish issue. And I haven't offered any ideas on Iraq. But hey, there are just a few thoughts.

Good night, Y.

What should we make of the IS claim of responsibility?

1.- Does the incident at all look like a possible "Islamic State" attack? 

I would put it this way: Downing a Russian airliner is quite conceivably something that the "Islamic State" would be wanting to achieve right now, given that the Russian air force has, among other groups, also hit the IS in recent airstrikes in Syria.

2.- What exactly has the "IS" claimed this far? 

The most important item so far is the written claim of responsibility put out via IS and pro IS Twitter channels. It is in the name of the "Sinai Province" of the IS, of which we know that it actually exists. The format and style of the claim also resemble what we have been seeing in recent months, not only on a daily basis from within IS territories in Syria and Iraq, but also when IS "wilayat" or "provinces" (meaning branches) claimed certain attacks, for example in Kuwait or Tunisia earlier this year. This written claim is therefor either authentic or a fairly sophisticated fake.

In this claim, the IS Sinai province says that "soldiers of the Caliphate" had managed to down the Russian jet, killing all of the "Russian Crusaders" on board. It makes reference to the Russians killing scores of people in Syria every day and goes on to state that the Russians and their allies won't be safe in Muslim lands or in the skies above them.

The IS Headquarters, however, seems to have elevated this claim to another level when it put out an audio version of the claim later today. This audio is a verbatim of the written claim but was published by the official IS radio station "al-Bayan", meaning that the IS central command or Headquarters or leadership or whatever you want to call it echoed the claim of the Sinai Jihadists and thus documented that they thought it was credible enough to amplify it.

Apart from that, the claim was also run prominently on the website of al-Shmukh, a top tier Jihadist internet forum. If they run it, they also think it is likely true.

Then there is, thirdly, a rather obscure video of 20 seconds length. As far as I can see, it was taken off YouTube already, but there is still an embedded version of it to be found here.

In this short clip, a plane is shown that eventually drops out of the sky, apparently hit by a missile or rocket or blown apart by an onboard explosive device. I don't think that anyone can confirm at this point that this video even shows the Russian plane in questions. This video is even more obscure because it carries no audio claim, but features, at the very beginning, the logo of the IS province in the Sinai - albeit an outdated version of it.

This makes me very skeptical of the authenticity of this particular video.

3.- Is the claim by the IS Sinai province credible? 

First of all, it is important to note that the IS Sinai Province claim doesn't contain a single shred of information that would reveal insider knowledge of the attack or the modus operandi. No weapon system is mentioned, no information on what exactly it was that brought the jet down is offered. That is usually not a good sign.

Secondly, a lot of people who know more about jets and weapon systems than I do are saying that the plane was flying much too high for the IS to be able to hit it with the most advanced system at their disposal, which apparently are man pads. I will not weigh in, as this is a technical discussion. But as far as I understand we don't know yet if the jet was perhaps brought down by an explosive device onboard the plane - which leaves us with the theoretical possibility that the IS brought one there. These questions may, however, soon be answered by experts with access to the flight recorder, etc.

What makes me wonder in regard to the credibility of the claim is another thing: The IS usually doesn't lie. It does lie, to be sure, but not as a rule. And as a rule of thumb I believe it is fair to say that the bigger the operation or attack in question, the less likely it has been (so far, at least) that the IS was presenting a complete lie. This record is not impeccable, as especially in the beginning of the IS's expansion in Syria it seems that the IS was sometimes quite happy to claim responsibility for other groups' attacks.

However, the IS HQ is taking a risk here by amplifying the claim published by their Sinai group if it turned out to be a lie. Retaining credibility is of great concern to Jihadist groups: you can quickly loose support and supporters if you are caught claiming stuff you didn't do. It is not sustainable.

Bearing this in mind, I am wondering if the IS for some reason may really believe it was them - even if in reality it may not have have been them. Sounds crazy, I know. Just a thought.

4.- So, what should me make of all of this?  

That's easy:

* This incident should NOT be counted as an IS terror attack (yet).
* We should consider the written claim of responsibility by the IS Sinai province as quite possibly authentic, but not beyond doubt. Furthermore we should bear in mind that even if authentic, it can still be false or untruthful.
* We need to look closely at what the technical investigations will tell us.
* We should look out for IS publications containing credible pieces of insider information.

What to look for when looking at today's terror attacks

June 26th, 2015 - This is going to be a brief blog post. Because we know way too little for any kind of sustainable analysis yet. But there are few points that can be made and which can help in directing and informing our understanding of what happened today.

1.- The attack in Kuwait was an IS attack - and it may be connected to the attack in Tunisia. 

The claim of responsibility published a few hours ago fits the bill. I believe it to be authentic and I consider the attack on a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City an IS attack for the time being.

As for the attack in Tunisia's tourist paradise in Sousse: In this case IS sympathizers, or people who would call themselves actual members of the IS, are the most likely perpetrators. The IS has called for attacks in Tunisia on several occasion, destabilizing the only country that actually made a democratic turn after the events of 2011 is a prime target for the group. There are several thousands of Tunisians who are fighting on behalf of the IS in Syria and Iraq; they have ab extensive networks of supporters and sympathizers in the country; and the IS has struck there before - in March, in the capital Tunis.

It is not unlikely that the Kuwait attack and the Sousse attack have been co-ordinated, at least roughly. We saw a similar thing in March, when a mosque in Sanaa in Yemen and a museum in Tunis were struck within 48 hours - and, intriguingly, the respective IS claims of responsibility bore a very high degree of similarity. In the case of the Sousse attack, we don't have a claim of responsibility yet. So let's wait and see.

2.- The attack in France resembles other plots and attacks by self-recurites sympathizers

It seems to have been rather amateurish (the perpetrator did not manage to instigate the massive explosion he probably had in mind); it seems to have been executed by a single person; it seems to have had a personal dimension untypical of attacks planned by networks in that the murdered and decapitated victim appears to have been the alleged perpetrator's boss.

As Thomas Hegghammer and others have pointed out, most attacks and plots executed and hatched in the West in the past few years go back originated with self-recuited sympathizers. Right now, this seems to be the most likely scenario. It would also mean that there is likely no connection to the attacks in Sousse and Kuwait.

3.- The attacks in Kobane are separate from these other attacks 

I don't know this for a fact, it is just an assumption. But I am rather sure that even if the IS leadership in Syria/Iraq did have prior knowledge of the fact that something was planned in Tunisis and Kuwait, they would not have chosen to stage an offensive in Kobane just to amplify that signal. My reading is that the IS in the theatre can't really afford to coordinate his attacks inside the theatre with what people may be planning in the larger region. Other criteria for plotting apply, synchronization is not relay of importance.

4.- Please bear in mind the following 

It is still very early. Findings may soon change the hypothesis I have laid out here. If that happens, I will re-calibrate accordingly. 

Don't fall for the "Islamic State's" attempt at coining our opinion

June, 23rd 2015 - I have said it before, I will say it again: Let's try to not fall for the "Islamic State's" attempt at coining our opinion.

Earlier today the terror group published a new horrific video. It shows how the Jihadists murder a number of men who they claim have been "spies". The men are killed in three different ways: One group is being shot at with an RPG while forced to sit in a car; the second group is drowned to death by lowering the cage in which they are all placed into what appears to be a pool (while a mounted camera keeps filming under water); a third group is being murdered through an explosive charge that the terrorists ignite after the necks of the men have been connected to each other with a long wire.

I am certain that these methods, never shown in a high-end IS production before, have only been devised for one reason: So that the international public agrees that they constitute an escalation in brutality. The Jihadists want to increase the fear they instill in others by convincing them that they are acting ever more cruelly. (They did a very similar thing in January, when they filmed the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot.)

The problem is that many observers, including journalists, actually concur. And while I can understand anyone who finds these videos despicable and heinous (I find them such myself), I believe it is important we don't fall for this. We shouldn't follow the IS's intended lead and rank methods of murder according to brutality. I, for one, don't agree that any of the methods shown in the new video is in fact more brutal than many other methods that the IS has been employing for quite some time. Is any of this really more brutal than cutting someone's head of? Throwing someone off a high building? Stoning a woman to death?

If we accept the IS's suggestion that it is, we are actually helping them in shaping their own image. But we shouldn't allow the IS to coin our opinions in such a way.

As far as I am concerned, my disgust for the IS cannot be raised by videos like this.

PS: I know that I wrote a very similar piece in January, when the video of the killing of the Jordanian pilot was published. But I think this is so important that it is worth writing about it twice. 

Arrests in Oberursel

April 30th, 2015 - Today, police and the local prosecutor's office confirmed that they have arrested a couple under the suspicion that they had been "preparing for a severe crime intended to pose a threat to the state", which is a statutory offence often cited in terrorism related cases.

Here is a short list of what we know and what we don't know (yet).

According to the authorities, the couple are a man and a woman in their mid-thirties with ties in the Salafi community in the Frankfurt region. In a raid in their flat, police found weapons parts and ammunition as well as several chemical materials and a pipe bomb that is believed to be functioning. 

Some media are reporting that the man has ties to al-Qaida. The authorities have not commented on that. 

I cannot confirm it at this point but would point out that knowing people who are members of al-Qaida or have at some point been associating with al-Qaida is not necessarily the same as having connections to al-Qaida. 

Authorities say that they do not at this point know of a particular plan for an attack but are confident that they have indeed foiled on. One reason for taking action at this point was that the man had been observed along the route of a bike race scheduled for tomorrow. 

Authorities are also not commenting on whether they believe that there are accomplices. They stressed that the investigation was ongoing. 

According to my information, authorities have at this point no indications that the couple has travelled to Syria recently. 

Why Jihadists can time-travel and we cannot

March 31st, 2015 - The fact that the "Islamic State" is providing English, German, French or even Russian translations of the speeches of the "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani does not mean that these documents are understandable for a Western audience. Sure, most people will get the general meaning. But a lot of the allusion and some of the arguments inherent in them will be lost on readers who have never concerned themselves with Jihadist ideology or Arab history.

One could of course say that that's just fine: Aren't we, after all, talking about an ideology of murderers? Why would I want to understand their speeches? Why waste time to get into their brains?

I disagree with that position. I believe it does make sense to try and understand the IS better. Not least of all, because it helps assessing what they might be up to next. The ideology of Jihadists is brutal and murderous. But it is not entirely illogical or obscure.

A good case in point is the very way in which Jihadists interpret the history of mankind and, in fact, the course and even flow of time. It is here that we find a distinct difference in the way in which Jihadists and Westerners look at the world.

In the West, we are used to agree that there is a thing called the past and it's over; there is a thing called the present and it is now; and there is a thing called the future, which is about to happen. These states don't overlap and there is a particular order in which they occur. This is a linear concept of time.

Jihadists don't fully share this concept. They will agree that time goes by, but they will also maintain that that basically doesn't matter or change anything. It is as if we have a wristwatch and they have a wristwatch, but their's doesn't have numbers on it: Time goes by, but it doesn't mean anything.

If you look at the IS's publications, you can find traces of this all over the place. Take this quote from IS spokesperson al-Adnani from last June, when he said about the IS fighters that they "denounce Nationalism as they denounce the Jahiliyya".

What does that mean?

Jahiliyya, of course, is a term from the Quran and plays a role in Muslim intellectual history. It literally means "ignorance" and has mostly been used in the sense of "era of ignorance", thus describing human history prior to the advent of the prophet Mohammed who ended the state of ignorance when he brought God's word into the world. In the Jahilliya, people had been either heathens or they had followed the distorted and compromised versions of God's message as preserved by Christians and Jews.

But why does al-Adnani use the term as if the Jahiliyya was something that still exists? Because for him, it does. His quote is an echo of the new meaning of the term Jahiliyya that was developed by, among others, Sayyid Qutb, an important figure in the early Islamist movement.

Qutb took the term Jahiliyya out of it's historical context and made it transcendent. For him, there were only two kinds of societies, as he described it in his book "Ma'alim fi al-Tariq": A Muslim society - and Jahilliya.

Qutb thus turned a historical demarcation line into an ideological one. He exchanged "before Mohammed" with "against Mohammed". Jihadists, who have taken many beliefs of Islamism to the extreme, not only share this notion in theory - for them, it is practically real.

And that's not without consequence. Because this allows Jihadists to time-travel between what we consider to be two separate states of past and present. For Jihadists, time may have passed between the 7th century and today, but only in a profane way. Which is why the conflicts of the 7th century are, in their eyes, neither past nor over. What they see in the way of conflict in the world today, is not similar to those conflicts, it is identical - it is the very same fight. Look closely and you will find, e.g., that many IS fighters and supporters don't compare themselves to the companions of the prophet Mohammed - they rather count themselves among them.

So if from time to time we have the feeling that IS authors somewhat oddly jump between times and tenses, it is because their understanding of the way in which human history evolves is different. It is not entirely linear. 

It is, however, partly linear and partly compatible with the Western view of history and time. In March 2015, for example, al-Adnani stated that "if our ancestors fought against the Romans, the Persians and the Unbelievers yesterday, we are proud to fight against them today".

Look at this closely: While al-Adnani accepts that there is a difference between "today" and "yesterday", he doesn't not allow for a distinction between the enemies of then and now. They are the same, they are identical - even if the date on the calendar perhaps is not.

All of this links back to the Jihadist conviction that history is not a chain of events set in motion by mankind but a constant re-play of the ever same battle between believers and unbelievers set in motion by God.

The forces of evil never change, they only change their appearance. A great illustration of that is how Osama Bin Laden liked to call George W. Bush "Hubal" - which is the name of a God from pre-Islamic times (Jahiliyya!). Bin Laden didn't compare Bush to Hubal. He identified him as Hubal. 

Of course this Jihadist view of history and time is not entirely free of contradictions. The IS, e.g., hardly ever speaks of the West, but instead uses the terms Crusaders or Romans a lot. The Romans (of Byzanz) were of course a force that the early Muslims actually fought against - but the Crusaders were not. They appeared centuries later. So the IS terminology does allow for historical invention up to a point.

But be that as it may: No ideology is free of contradictions. And in the context of this post, I believe it is more important to understand that what may appear as obscure to us at first, may be fully logical in the ears of a Jihadist.

There is one last important difference between the Western view and the Jihadist view, of course: We tend to think of history as open-ended. Jihadists don't: There will be an end to the world - the day of resurrection. Only on that day will the eternal battle between Good and Evil end with the triumph of the forces of Good. This notion also features prominently in IS propaganda. And it is another example of an idea that, while many people in the West may perhaps be able to understand it intellectually, is a very real prospect for Jihadists that pertains to their life decisions - like joining the war in Syria, where Dabiq lies, a place believed to be the stage for one of the end of times battles between Good end Evil.

So I guess what I am trying to say is really this: Different ideologies are one thing. But what sets us apart from Jihadists in a very substantial way, too, is the fundamental difference in the interpretation of history and even the concept of time.


PLEASE NOTE: This is an edited and somewhat different version of a German language blog post I published at DIE ZEIT online yesterday