Map of Syria and Iraq

Photo by Thursday Review

Stolen Documents Show ISIS Seeks
Upper Hand in Recruitment

| published April 18, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

According to security and terrorism experts commissioned by NBC News, a recently-obtained collection of documents exposes the recruitment methods and long-range plans of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State.

The extensive cache of files contains, among other things, personnel records and recruitment conversations for the Islamic State, which now controls a wide swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, as well as territory in at least seven other countries. ISIS is also directly or indirectly responsible for hundreds of deaths as a result of bombings and mass shootings in scores of countries worldwide.

The personnel files and other documents are part of a larger treasure trove of material allegedly stolen on a flash drive by an ISIS defector, a Syrian man who copied the data months ago before fleeing ISIS-controlled areas and working his way to Europe. The Syrian man—who has insisted on anonymity—has told NBC News that he copied the files to the flash drive from a laptop used by a high-ranking ISIS commander.

NBC News has worked with terrorism experts and the U.S. military to unlock and analyze the data, an extensive set of files which has yielded names and nationalities of more than four thousand ISIS recruits, revealed key elements of ISIS financial information, and outline the structure and hierarchy of both the political and military arms of the Islamic State.

The data also shows that ISIS operatives move and travel much more freely and openly that security experts in the United States, Britain and Europe had previously thought possible. According to information revealed in the documents, many of those on watch lists or suspect lists in Europe and the U.S. have travelled openly and in plain sight, to and from Europe and other regions, apparently under the noses of the law enforcement and security apparatus of numerous countries. The data confirms the worst fears of police in Europe; at least two of the Paris bombers travelled freely back and forth from Syria to Belgium and France, even though each were well known to the authorities.

Terrorism experts at West Point and with other agencies have begun analyzing the material obtained by NBC News via the Syrian defector, and they too believe the data to be authentic.

One key revelation in the documents—especially visible in much of the recruitment material—is the wider ambitions of ISIS to expand its territory and its global reach. The files show an Islamic State with an ambitious plan to extend its terror activities into every continent and—eventually—every country. The material also shows that ISIS seeks to regain its momentum in the Middle East, enlarging and securing the contiguous areas of its caliphate to include Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.

Indeed, as part of its goal to extend its reach into many scores of nations and regions, ISIS is actively and aggressively recruiting people from more than 70 countries, seeking those with substantial language skills and cultural understanding. Terror experts interpret this as confirmation of what they have suspected from the attacks in Belgium, Paris and San Bernardino—ISIS seeks to recruit individuals who, in many cases, are already partially or fully assimilated into the culture and society of the nation which they call home.

The documents also show that ISIS seeks recruits from every walk of life and from every level of economic and educational achievement—not just the twenty-somethings from poor or struggling area of large cities in Europe or the U.S. All new recruits are apparently required to complete a job application, and among the various questions asked on the form is whether the recruit wants to serve as a militant/fighter, or in a suicide role as a bomber. Surprisingly, only a small percentage actually choose the path of suicide, while most want to advance within the ranks of ISIS. Experts suggest that this makes pragmatic sense as well for ISIS commanders, who would not want their best recruits opting for martyrdom when there is much work to be done within the boundaries of ISIS-controlled territories.

The files also show that ISIS ranks have swelled considerably in recent years, starting with a sharp increase in late 2013 when an al Qaeda affiliate called the al Nusra Front disavowed its allegiance to al Qaeda and officially aligned themselves with the newly-expanding Islamic State. ISIS has also sought to gain the upper hand in luring smaller terror groups in Africa and Asia to swear allegiance to the Islamic State. In fact, the documents reveal that ISIS is seeking to gain superiority in terror recruitment worldwide, often competing with al Qaeda for the same potential recruit in, say, Indonesia, and offering and more compelling and slickly-packaged set of tools to attract the potential ISIS fighter.

An underlying theme found in the narrative of the documents: ISIS seeks to eventually tip the scales globally, nudging or forcing other radical Islamist groups to ally themselves with the Islamic State—and only the Syrian-based Islamic State—in order to forge a worldwide Islamic caliphate. ISIS also seeks in recruitment to make all potential fighters and militants to embrace the notion of an Islamic world at war with infidels, and the papers reveal that ISIS commanders frown upon the “false narrative” of Islam coexisting peacefully among the other non-Muslim nations of the world.

The data also yielded a crucial but perhaps predictable element: among those potential recruits or volunteers with a college degree or specialized training, most had menial jobs or low-skill jobs in the countries which they call home, a telling indicator that economic frustration may play a part in nudging even those with advanced education toward the message of the Islamic State.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Pentagon to Request Troop Increase to Battle ISIS; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; March 26, 2016.

Brussels Terror Attacks Leave 31 Dead, Hundreds Wounded; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 22, 2016.