Saudi Study Challenges Image of Jihadis as Outcasts

Court House News/February 7, 2019

By Emilee Larkin

Distinguishing young Saudi jihadis from other foreign fighters who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, a new study on radicalization says today’s Saudi fighters are leaving the suicide missions to European recruits. 

Drawing the data from entry documents leaked in 2016, the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies looked at 759 Saudi men recruited by the Islamic State group between 2013 and 2014. 

Published Tuesday, the study notes that having access to these leaked documents, though rare, is valuable. 

“By analyzing IS’s own records and focusing on those pertaining to individuals hailing from a country that has always been targeted and regarded as the ultimate prize for terrorist groups and organizations (namely Saudi Arabia), this study represents an important step in increasing contextual knowledge,” the 40-page report states. “Such knowledge is vital when dealing with a phenomenon as intricate as terrorism and a process as complex as radicalization.” 

While the fighters were mostly young, they were not teenagers or adolescents. Over half of them were between the ages of 20 and 29. Only 13 percent were over the age of 30, and 15 percent were under the age of 19. The study adds that these new-generation jihadists are not outcasts or loners, a stark contrast to what is known about Islamic State fighters who hail from European countries like France and the United Kingdom.

Whereas an unrelated analysis of 3,000 leaked Islamic State records showed that 70 percent of recruits had little to no understanding of Islam, 

FTF is an abbreviation for foreign terrorist fighters. The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies published analysis on Islamic State entry documents in collaboration with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.

Tuesday’s study found an even split among Saudi recruits with either a basic knowledge of Islam or knowledge that qualified as intermediate or advanced. 

Indeed 36 of the Saudis who had jobs before joining the Islamic State worked as either religious police or imams, or otherwise considered themselves religious preachers. Another 50 recruits with jobs had been in the Saudi military or police. Just 15 percent of recruits were unemployed. 

Islamic State recruits from Europe tend to be high school dropouts or unemployed, but the Tuesday’s study found that, of 759 recruits, 337 did not get past high school. Another 119 had bachelor’s degrees. 

“This group of Saudi FTF was not educationally underachieving; thus, it would be difficult to claim that they suffer from lack of opportunities or an absence of upward mobility,” the study states. 

An important finding in the study shows that the vast majority of Saudi recruits, 625 of them, volunteered to be fighters but only 71 of them signed up to be suicide bombers. Of those that signed up to be a suicide bomber, 13 were married and 10 had children. 

Most of the recruits, 73 percent, were single and only 18 percent listed themselves as married. 

A province in Central Saudi Arabia, al-Qassim, produced the highest ratio of recruits by a significant margin of per 100,000. The study suggests this could be from a surge of activism in the conservative province in 2011. The largest number, however, came out of Riyadah, with 262 recruits.

“IS attempts to exploit sectarian fault lines in societies and tailor its narrative and approach to the specific historical and social contexts of each country,” the study states. “It is therefore imperative to gain as much contextual knowledge as possible in order to be able to devise effective solutions to confront its menace.” 

The report was written by Abdullah bin Khaled Al-Saud. Representatives for the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London, which collaborated on the report, did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.

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