In the last few days a trove of new personnel files were leaked by a former member of Daesh containing thousands of personnel files on fighters. Sky News was at the center of the leak and has their very sensational account of their importance here. Yet what started with a splash may turn out to be far less exciting than Sky is making it out to be. Some are already pointing out that the files likely contain very little new information as they are several years old- (here too). So what’s worth paying attention to? I think the metadata of these docs, once fully analyzed and collated, can shine light on questions of radicalization.
The image above is just one example of the documents in question. The red watermarks were added by the media company who published the docs and are not part of the original. I agree with Aymenn Tamimi about several things- these docs do not resemble any of the other docs that have been leaked and determined to be original so far. That doesn’t mean it’s fake, but it must be taken into consideration. On top of this, one can see the outdated logo at the top right which still reflects the name ISIS before the shortened it. That is consistent with the dates of entry I have seen so far, but there’s way too many docs here to claim that standard holds across them all. One must ask, why would someone go to the length of faking thousands of these records? If it were a single fake document that had a very explicit falsehood, one with political consequences, I could see the potential motivation. With this trove, it’s not so clear why anyone would do that.
The list of questions on the form is quite straightforward in the beginning. I don’t think we really lack for data about which countries jihadis are coming from, but there’s always room for more accuracy and transparency. We see, at least from reports I’ve read, that the Turkish border has been the entry point of preference, but that was basically known already. Aside from these, there are some interesting categories here that deserve more scrutiny. First, question number 15 asks if the person has taken part in jihad before- and if so, where? The example I have above is just a straight ‘no’, but the ability to derive statistics from this and classify exactly how many of these fighters were rookie jihadists as opposed to how many were seasoned would be very interesting. Right now, we can only look at forms individually.
Second, I think question number 10 opens a very interesting window into the rest of the jiahdi’s life. It asks what profession the person had before coming. In the example above, it says he had no work before, itself a telling answer. The data for the entire set would go a long way to answering some burning questions that scholars and pundits have been arguing over- what pushes people to join jihad? How much is poverty or lack of work a factor in that? For those who think poverty is the main driving force behind radicalization, economic development becomes the prescription that will minimize terrorism and violent radicalization. If however, the data show that many are not materially deprived, the keys to their radicalization cannot be so simply boiled down to failures in economic development.
I should say I don’t think we’ll ever get one overarching theory explaining radicalization; I think there are too many unique circumstances in the lives of different individuals as well as different countries. I think we’ll find with more research that the reasons that a Belgian radicalizes will most often not align with those of a Saudi, for example. There is also an interesting, if controversial, debate about whether engineers are more prone to becoming jihadis than others. Finally, I am curious to see if the identities here can be verified and to what extent the information Daesh had for its bureaucracy was accurate. I hope some of this metadata about these files becomes available soon, and you can trust that once it does I will write about it.