As the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) intensifies, a survey of young Arabs, a major source of recruitment by the jihadists, and a trove of ISIS personnel records, which analysts consider the “most significant” cache of its kind, has provided important insights into the group’s regional standing — even suggesting support for ISIS is falling among Arab millennials.
The data that emerged indicate that, despite the destructive power of despair among young Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa that has been driving them into the arms of ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate aimed at reviving the medieval glory days of Islam, many do not see jihad as the answer to their woes and possibly one of the causes of their distress.
The survey — the eighth annual polling of its kind — determined that 13% of the 3,500 Arab men aged 18-24 polled in 16 countries said they could not see themselves supporting ISIS even if it became less violent. At the same time, 50% of respondents said they perceived ISIS as the region’s biggest problem, up from 27% a year ago.
This would seem to challenge the perceived wisdom of recent years that alienation and a deep-rooted sense of hopelessness and marginalisation among the younger generation are the incubators for an alarming drift towards Islamic militancy that ISIS tapped into for its fighters, suicide bombers and even its army of bureaucrats who administer its caliphate.
At the same time, a vast cache of ISIS documentation that has emerged, reputedly provided by an ISIS defector, underlines that thousands of Arabs with an average age of 26 or 27, went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS’s war in 2013- 14.
That flood of recruits may have diminished since then, particularly as ISIS is under growing military pressure and is said to have lost more than 40% of the territory it conquered in its 2014 blitzkrieg.
The overwhelming majority of the men polled in the survey, published on April 12th, rejected terrorism but said the biggest crisis facing the region is widespread unemployment, particularly among the young; poor governance and the lack of democracy and chronic instability.
The survey clearly shows that Arab leaders ignore the clamour from young people at their peril: that unless regional governments provide jobs and stability, it may be hard to contain the destructive power of despair.
ISIS “thrives on political, social and religious failures”, observed analyst Hassan Hassan in a paper issued with the survey conducted by the Dubai office of the Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, one of the region’s leading public relations agencies.
“Daesh may weaken and disappear but the underlying sickness will remain and similar groups will emerge if that sickness is not addressed,” Hassan said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
One of the main sources of this instability in a region gripped by conflict from Morocco to Yemen, 72% of the respondents said, is the deepening rift between Sunnis and Shias, a rivalry that ISIS is deliberately enflaming.
At the same time, 52% said they felt religion plays too big a role in the region and 39% saw the Syrian bloodbath as a proxy war waged by global and regional powers. Almost half said they supported the July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and US-led global powers — in striking contrast to the fury and alarm this caused among the Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Gulf.
The leaked ISIS documents, which contained personnel records on more than 4,600 volunteers, to some extent support the survey’s findings. The mass of data, analysed by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, showed that only 12% of the Muslims who went to Syria were prepared to carry out suicide missions.
That ratio is starkly at variance with CTC data on foreign volunteers with al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s jihadist predecessor, in 2006-07, when more than half said they were willing to kill themselves during attacks for the caliphate.
The CTC experts provided another telling conclusion — and this underlines the degree to which economic stagnation propels young Muslims to seek out ISIS — which is that many of the volunteers had more menial jobs than their higher level of education would suggest.
The lack of employment prospects also appears to have been a significant influence: 656 of the volunteers were students who presumably saw jihad as a better prospect than a life without a decent job.
This article by Ed Blanche, originally appeared in The Arab Weekly