All Jihad is Local

What ISIS' Files Tell Us About Its Fighters
Policy Paper
July 20, 2016

Until now, the threat posed by ISIS’ foreign fighters has been understood mainly through rough estimates of their countries of origin: 36,500 recruits have come from at least 100 countries since 2012, including 6,900 from the West, according to Senate testimony in February 2016 by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Analysts have also examined, albeit roughly, what factors drive militants to join extremist groups, such as joblessness and the spread of radical, violent ideology. 

But to understand the nature of the global threat of violent extremism, the focus must be set on the local politics that created it in the first place. By using personal information volunteered by over 3,500 foreign fighters to ISIS officials—nearly 10 percent of the intelligence estimate—All Jihad is Local conducts the first quantitative analysis on the subnational origins of some of these fighters. 

The data analyzed in this report come from foreign fighter registration forms collected by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) officials on the Syria-Turkey border between mid-2013 and mid-2014. These data, leaked in early 2016 by a defected ISIS fighter who stole the records before fleeing to Turkey, represent an unprecedented cache of personal information about foreign fighters, including names and phone numbers of family and friends and notes about fighters’ potential roles within ISIS.

The report finds: 

  • Anti-government sentiment and poor local-federal relations are common threads among provinces sending high rates of fighters. Recruits join ISIS from regions with long histories of resisting the influence of state institutions. 
  • Foreign fighters joining ISIS are geographically, demographically, and socioeconomically diverse. Fighters from Xinjiang, China are generally older and poorer and tend to travel to ISIS territory with their families, while fighters from Muharraq, Bahrain are far younger, relatively wealthier, and unmarried. 
  • Local interventions could prevent the spread of radical ideology before it takes root. Motivations for foreign fighters are derived from highly specific local conditions, and so must the solutions.

With ISIS losing territory in Syria and Iraq, and some foreign fighters trying to return home, the war against ISIS may evolve from a battle over territory in Syria and Iraq to a decentralized fight against former foreign fighters committed to continuing the battle in their home countries. Learning who ISIS’ fighters are and where they come from is essential to developing effective policy responses to local conflicts that ISIS effectively links to its ideology and agenda.