Moving Parts: A Look at Where Islamic State Gets its Man and Machine Power From

My curiosity in the nature of the men powering the Islamic State (IS), grew out of a line from Philip Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect. In this book, Zimbardo asks whether suicide bombers are “mindless fanatics or mindful martyrs?” (2011:291). This quote was in reference to a 2004 study of al-Qaeda members by psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who found evidence of the normality of youths turned suicide bombers. His study found that ninety per cent of all al-Qaeda fighters came from ordinary families, and that seventy-five per cent were college educated. Sageman concluded they were the very “best and brightest of their society in many ways.”

Image courtesy of  Day Donaldson, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Day Donaldson, © 2014, some rights reserved.

And so a question was formed—who are the fighters behind, arguably, the world’s largest, wealthiest, and most threatening militant group? Originating as a group within al-Qaeda, it was initially called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In April 2013, ISI’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sought to gain influence over the main jihadi group in the Syrian civil war, started by a former ISI member, Abu Muhammad al-Joulani. With the consolidation of their forces, ISI became the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and later would be named the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In June 2014, after capturing multiple strategic cities and towns in western Iraq, ISIS declared the establishment of a “caliphate”: a self-proclaimed state governed by Sharia law and changed its name to be simply the Islamic State (IS). Muslims across the globe were called to migrate in a mass exodus to the newly claimed territory, swear allegiance to Baghdadi, and pick up arms to join in their brothers’ fight.

IS is notorious for its brutality against infidels, non-Muslims, and apostates, so much so that its reputation of extremism, along with differences over ideology and strategy, caused IS to break off from al-Qaeda in 2014. Unlike the American-trained Iraqi troops facing them, IS fighters are passionate and surprisingly well equipped. But where are they getting all of their power, both in man and machine?

Of the fighters originating from within Iraq and Syria, Iraqi expert, Hisham al-Hashimi told the BBC that he believes only 30 per cent of the group’s fighters are “ideologues”, with many joining due to coercion or out of fear. Since June 2015, IS has sustained a substantial loss of life due to United States led coalition airstrikes. To help palliate this manpower loss, IS has turned to conscription in some newly controlled areas. Still, a significant number of IS fighters are neither Iraqi nor Syrian. IS has reinforced its numerical strength by recruiting and ‘grooming’ thousands of foreign fighters hailing from over 50 countries. In October 2015, the National Counterterrorism Center estimated that IS has somewhere between 20,000 and 32,000 men under its control.

Approximately 700 people from the U.K. have left to join IS, some of whom are only teenagers. This migration of youth from well educated, middle class families to join the world of war and brutality that is IS is called ‘grooming’. To look into this social psychological phenomenon, an interview between Vice News UK and Steven Hassan, a former 1980’s cult member, will be contemplated. Hassan makes a point that from the perspective of an outsider looking in, IS looks like a group of combative, radical, criminals but stepping inside the minds of these people, who are being targeted for recruitment, you see instead a group of people who want to change themselves and are eager to have a role in making the world a ‘better’ place. Obviously, the concept of what is ‘better’ is subjective, as most people in the world would not like to see it rid of all Christians, Americans, and Western civilization as a whole. Hassan says something quite similar to what Sageman found in his study of al-Qaeda militants: if you look at who many of IS fighters were before they were recruited, many of them were normal people from ordinary homes, often with high levels of education. So terrorists are not always simply psychopaths; they are the product of the transformation to which recruiters have deliberately subjected them.

Only a couple of months ago, the U.K. and David Cameron were faced with a difficult national security issue: whether to kill two British nationals in an effort to protect the lives of may other British citizens. On 21 August, the British government, with Cameron’s authorization, killed Reyadd Kahn, 21, and Ruhul Amin, 26–two Britons fighting with IS. The drone strike was unprecedented, and was qualified as an exercise of “self-protection.” A third Briton, Junaid Hussain, 21, was killed three days later by a separate U.S. airstrike.

Beyond the U.K., there has been a serious wave of EU nationals migrating to the IS caliphate territory. The French Interior Ministry, for example, suspects that up to ten former French soldiers have defected to join IS. In Austria, there are about sixty suspected jihadists. The head of Swedish Intelligence Services, Anders Thornberg, publically announced on Sveriges Radio that “hundreds of people have left to join the fighting, but there are presumed cases, and there are cases that have not been counted, so the total is somewhere between 250 and 300”. Based on an International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) report, German citizens are thought to be among the top commanders of IS, making Germany a considerable source of Islamic foreign fighters from Western Europe. German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maziere, said “Most German fighters who participate in the war in Syria and Iraq have sworn allegiance to IS, and therefore they present a clear and present threat to Western societies, and will likely continue to do so for years to come.” It is estimated that there are at least 440 militants hailing from Belgium, making Belgium the country with the highest number of IS foreign fighters per capita of any other western nation. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) suggests that while a quarter of foreign fighters are from the West, the majority are still from nearby Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.

So we’ve established where their manpower is coming from, but how does IS sustain its military efforts? IS is believed to be the world’s wealthiest militant group to date, and while initially it relied on wealthy private donors, the group now is largely self-funded. The US Treasury estimates that in 2014 IS may have earned as much as several million dollars per week, much of which came from the sale of crude oil from two gas fields it seized in Syria. Religious minorities are also forced to pay a special tax, and IS profits from robbing banks, selling antiquities, and kidnapping for ransom.

Most of their weapons and machinery are U.S. manufactured and were left behind by fleeing Iraqi soliders. Interestingly, just last week, Counter-terrorism officials at the US Treasury have contacted Toyota over concerns of how IS has managed to get a hold of so many of its trucks. Toyota swiftly responded with a statement that it “has a strict policy to not sell vehicles to potential purchasers who may use or modify them for paramilitary or terrorist activities.” Yet, many of their notoriously tough trucks have been converted into very effective, heavy gun platforms know as “technicals” which IS has boasted about and spotlighted in many of their videos.

Throughout this conflict, concerns over the influx of foreign fighters from Europe, the U.S. and the U.K., and from the wider Arab world, have been a major concern for world leaders. Although much is known about where these fighters are coming from, and how IS is getting its military and economic strength, the question of how to stop these people from migrating to and valuable weapons getting into the hands of the Islamic State remains.