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!



  1. your comments on the prior occupations contradicts your earlier claim that;appears to have had no real jobs or jobs that require little training or have had no advanced schooling.

    soldiers, imams and soccer players are all real jobs, and a student of shariah at an islamic university is advanced schooling

  2. Hey Alex, no, it doesn't. Those are examples, on an individual level, they don't represent a majority. They are simply cases I found noteworthy

    1. It would be better if you (and this is not only you, every single journalist/analyst refuses to make the raw data public) provided the actual data so we could see it transparently and be actually able to see the precise numbers (you use the word 'majority', but how much of a majority, and of what total?) ourselves. Without public data, unfortunately anyone who is an objective observer cannot trust your claims.

      I have already seen people deliberately twist and misinterpret your claims for their own agendas. For example, people using your claim that 3/4 list their sharia knowledge as weak, to claim that this means that they have no Islamic knowledge and are not motivated by Islam. A more plausible understanding of that data is that they are being modest and recognizes that a basic level of sharia knowledge is all that can be expected of an ordinary Muslim and that it would be ludicrous to expect a majority of the 30,000 regular people who joined IS from abroad to have a good or scholarly level of knowledge. What an objective understanding of this data would show is none other than what would be expected, that the average Muslim joining IS has the average level of Islamic knowledge that we would expect.

      And your claims about the education/occupation of people are also being twisted to suit an agenda that says people are motivated by socioeconomic concerns rather than Islam, even though this is not borne out in the majority of empirical studies even among 'terrorism scholars'.

  3. In your German article you translate, "Inghimasi" as an amok fighter. I understand this does not translate easily into English. Could you comment on this term? This was an excellent article by the way in both English and German. Many Thanks. Michael W. S. Ryan

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