The curious case of the educated joining ISIS

A new World Bank study, citing leaked ISIS database, shows only 17 percent did not finish high school out of 331 recruits

Dina al-Shibeeb
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A new World Bank study described recruits into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group as better educated than their average countryman, altering popular belief that poverty is the main reason behind joining these militants.

“Poverty is not a driver of radicalization into violent extremism,” the newly released study titled “Economic and Social Inclusion to Prevent Violent Extremism” said.


The study’s data also shows that those offering to become suicide bombers ranked on average in the more educated group.

Out of 331 recruits described in a leaked ISIS database, only 17 percent did not finish high school, while a quarter had university-level educations.

Militants joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq-based forces had several more years of education in their home countries – whether in Europe, Africa or elsewhere in the Middle East – than the average citizen.

Only those from Eastern Europe were below the average, and only marginally so, according to the study.

“Foreign recruits from the Middle East, North Africa and South and East Asia are significantly more educated than what is typical in their region,” the report said.

Not new phenomenon

Highly-educated, well-off individuals joining militant groups is nothing new. Al-Qaeda’s late leader Osama bin Laden hailed from a wealthy Saudi family, while current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was a surgeon.

Individuals, who joined ISIS, included Tunisian Anwar Bayouth for example. Bayouth, 27, who was arrested on July soon after his arrival from ISIS’s caliphate to his home country with his fiancé, who was also a member of the group.

Bayouth was a former medical student, and he and his fiancé are children of high-ranking military men from well-off families.

His privileged background served him well as his father, who was killed in the attack on Istanbul airport in June, used his position to convince Tunisia’s government to help bring back his son from Turkey, to which the Free Syria Army (FSA) handed Bayouth after he gave himself up.

Aliya al-Alani, a prominent expert in radical Islamist groups at the University of Tunis, said Bayouth was recruited at a mosque in an affluent district in the capital.

Simon Cottee, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent, said “many ISIS supporters” are “clearly very smart.”
There is a history of “privileged people joining [Muslim and non-Muslim] terrorist groups,” he added.

Alani said these recruits are lured by power: “This is a big opportunity, where they can be in charge of a large number of people.”



On an ideological level, the new recruits are “brainwashed” after being represented with “selective” and “manipulative” version of Islam which blurs their vision by paint brushing everyone who does not agree to their hardline interpretation as “kafir” or unbeliever.

Citing a Quranic verse – which shows tolerance in Islam - “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve,” Alani said “they brainwash those youths through a simplistic rhetoric, they manipulate Quranic verses, and use them to their targets.”

Even if ISIS recruits men and women in a Muslim majority country, the ISIS ideology will convince these militants that “they live in a society that is not Muslim” and “ISIS as an organization will enable them to convert those people to be real Muslims.”

However, Cottee argues against the concept of “brainwashing.”

“I don’t think ‘brainwashing’ is a useful idea, since it depoliticizes people and denies their agency,” he said.

The lecturer described ISIS “brutal, bloody videos” which are “part of the appeal,” “can be thrilling if you believe in the cause; it can be thrilling to certain people even if they don’t.”

Cottee also cited denial as a factor by many of ISIS supporter, “who either excuse or deny the worst atrocities committed by ISIS.”

Radicalization killed fathers, brothers just because they did not fall on the same wavelength of these militants

Aliya al-Alani, a prominent expert in radical Islamist groups at the University of Tunis

They kill their own parents

But for Alani, the “brainwashing” turns these recruits as a killing machine against their own parents or siblings.

“Radicalization killed fathers, brothers just because they did not fall on the same wavelength of these militants,” he said. “It breaks family values.”

Fahad Al-Shukairan, a Saudi expert on radical groups, said targeting of relatives are not new as it dates back to the 1970s when the so called jihadists in Afghanistan fought against the Soviet Union at the time.

“There were fatawas [religious edicts] that take guardianship away from the parents, and do not allow parental consent to be a condition for them to join jihad,” he said. “This is what is the author Abdulsalam Faraj described as the ‘the close enemy’ in his pamphlet the ‘The Neglected Obligation’.”

Through his pamphlet, Faraj, an Egyptian radical Islamist and theorist, who also was an electrical engineer, depicted the ratiocinative to fight internal enemies and kill other Muslims who do not follow the sharia.

Faraj was effective in funneling his radical influence in 1979. He was executed in 1982 for his role in coordinating the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat the previous year.

Militants killing their own kin is still continuing.

The latest example was on Feb. 2016, when a Saudi soldier Badr al-Rashidi was killed by two of his cousins after he was taken to the desert. ISIS has already issued a warning against Saudi government, and those working for it are seen as eligible targeted.

In June 2016, Saudi twin killed their parents and stabbed their brother.

It is time to start ‘filtering’

Many observers ponder the “closing gate of ijtihad” as the main reason behind the stagnating Islamic rhetoric. Ijtihad or “diligence” is an Islamic legal term that means independent reasoning or critical thinking.
Like many others, Alani called to bring back the need for critical thinking and the need to make decision according to “time and space.”

“Imam Abu Hanifa had a famous saying when he said ‘when I leave Iraq to the Sham [current day Syria] I change my fatwa.’ Meaning the fatwa in Iraq could possibly be not so suitable in Sham.

“Abu Hanifa had a far more flexible thinking that these ISIS militants…these ISIS militants they want to apply fatwas dating back the 1st century to the 21st century.”

He also said these militant groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, now blacklisted in Egypt, made the concept of “khilafa” or governance as a “holy” and not “civil” concept.

According to the professor, “there is no mention of khilafa in the Quran,” and Islam’s Prophet Mohammed did not specify a successor not because he “forgot” but it is for the people to choose, reiterating ISIS’s “selectiveness” in creating its own interpretation and narrative.

In the same time, he said “in the Islamic heritage, there are many ideas and principles that must be changed to be more suitable of this time and space, urging governments to imbue a thorough curriculum that can stimulate more “critical thinking” than just being mechanic.

While those who earn degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects tend to be seen as the bright scholars of the future, Alani said they are “most susceptible” to be potential recruits for these militant groups than those studying philosophy and other social science subjects, because they are encouraged to ask questions beyond the status quo.

Like him, Shukairan said “this tragedy can not be change only if we change the generic religious rhetoric, and bring a new breath to Islam.”

Until change could finally materialize, ISIS militarism will still mar societies and tear families.

Bayouth, who denounced ISIS after arriving Tunis, himself was shocked when heard the tragic news of his father’s death. He was reportedly transferred to a psychiatry ward, pleading for his execution because he was the reason behind his father’s death.

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