Recruits coming to ISIS with limited knowledge of Islam

Isis | Analysis of leaked data shows ISIS relies on new members’ ignorance
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 8/17/16, 11:20 am

The Islamic State’s (ISIS) employment forms ask would-be jihadists 23 pointed questions, including blood type, combat preferences, and a designated contact in case of death. But according to recently leaked data, ISIS looks to be largely indifferent to the religious acuity of its recruits.

In recent months, Syrian news website Zaman al-Wasl analyzed thousands of ISIS documents, including 3,000 employment forms from the initial push to recruit foot soldiers in 2013. An Associated Press analysis of those forms suggested the majority of early ISIS wannabes were not motivated by religion, with 7 out of 10 new recruits claiming only a “basic” knowledge of Islam, the lowest option on the form. Just 5 percent of recruits described themselves as advanced students of Islam.

“It takes a certain level of gullibility to accept Islamic State teachings,” said Jacob Olidort, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on Islamist groups and ISIS ideology. “Rather than emphasize traditional jihadist themes, militants seek to impose an ‘Islam 101’ on new recruits.” He said 40 percent of the group’s textbooks discuss introductory topics: how to pray, how to dress, how to trim your beard.

ISIS publications “reveal a systematic approach to how material is presented in order to doctrinally justify the group’s quartet of aims of encouraging violence, driving an apocalyptic narrative, establishing a purist ‘Islamic’ state, and labeling it a caliphate,” Olidort wrote.

The Quran is written in seventh-century Arabic, which, according to Islamic teaching, is the language of God. But few Muslims actually speak Arabic, much less Quranic Arabic.

“Most native English speakers can’t pick up Beowulf and read it in its original Old English, and most native Arabic speakers can’t pick up the Quran and understand what it means,” said Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who teaches courses on Islamic radicalism to the United States Navy and the FBI. “Most Muslims simply memorize the Quran and then memorize the interpretation that accompanies it.”

Or simpler still, a recruit could take to Amazon for self-study. The trial of early ISIS recruits Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar revealed the 22-year old Britons grabbed copies of The Koran for Dummies and Islam for Dummies before jetting to join Islamic militants in Syria. They were arrested on their return to Britain and convicted in 2014 of terrorism offenses.

In addition to religious understanding, ISIS enrollment forms ask applicants to list combat preferences: foot soldier or suicide bomber. According to a study by the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, recruits with the least knowledge of Islam were most likely to volunteer for martyrdom.

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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