Who's joining ISIS? It might surprise you...

CNN/December 15, 2015

By Heather Long

As President Obama vows to fight harder and smarter against ISIS, a new weapon is emerging to counter the terrorist organization: Big Data.

Beating ISIS will likely require more computer scientists like Zeeshan ul-hassan Usmani who lives in North Carolina.

Like many, Usmani watched news of the terrorist massacres in Paris and San Bernardino with horror. He wanted to do more than pray and condemn the violence.

Usmani runs the big data company PredictifyMe. He began to pour over data on ISIS recruits the way he normally analyzes data on consumers for major brands.

What could he learn from their online profiles? Who are these recruits -- and who is likely to be next?

Usmani estimates there are 71,000 people in the West (North America, Australia and Europe) who are "ready to radicalize."

Portrait of a typical ISIS recruit from the West:

The ready to radicalize population is overwhelmingly young and male. Usmani calls them "Jillennials" -- jihadis who are Millennials.

Contrary to popular belief, recruits from Europe and the U.S. are far more likely to be educated and come from middle or upper class families.

Usmani shared his data exclusively with CNN. His findings are similar to recent research by the Brookings Institution on "The ISIS Twitter Census" and George Washington University's "ISIS in America" report.

But Usmani focused mainly on Europe. He spent weeks analyzing as much data as he could find. He went through tweets, Facebook posts and the cases of people accused of terrorism in Europe.

What Big Data tells us about recruits

The research of Usmani, GWU and Brookings puts together a fuller portrait of who recruits are. Here are the top findings:

  • In their 20s (GWU found the average age is 26)
  • Predominately male (GWU found 86% are male)
  • Usually middle or upper class (Usmani estimates 73% of recruits and likely radicals are middle class or wealthier).
  • More likely to be 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants (Usmani finding. It is likely because they don't feel "at home" in either culture).
  • They don't like selfies (In Europe, over half of Facebook users post selfies, but only 1% of potential recruits do, Usmani found).
  • Far more likely to use Android (nearly 70% have Android devices, according to Brookings)
  • More active on Twitter than average Twitter user (Brookings found 62% of ISIS supporters had tweeted within the past month versus just 13% of all Twitter users).
  • Want to go abroad. (GWU found that about half attempt to travel abroad if they live in West).


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