The jihadi employment form asked the new recruits to rate their knowledge of Islam on a scale of one to three. And the Islamic State group applicants, herded into a hangar somewhere at the Syria-Turkey border, turned out to be overwhelmingly deemed ignorant. The extremist group could hardly have hoped for better.
At the height of the Islamic State group’s drive for foot soldiers in 2013 and 2014, typical followers included the group of Frenchmen who went bar-hopping with their recruiter back home, the recent European convert who now hesitantly describes himself as gay, and two Britons who ordered “The Koran for Dummies” from Amazon to prepare for jihad in Syria. They were all grouped in safe houses as a stream of Islamic State group imams filled in the gaps, according to court testimony and interviews by The Associated Press.
“I realized that I was in the wrong place when they began to ask me questions on these forms like ‘when you die, who should we call?'” said the 32-year-old European convert, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
He went to Syria in 2014 and said new recruits were shown IS propaganda videos on Islam, and that the visiting imams repeatedly praised martyrdom. Far from home and unschooled in religion, most of the recruits were in little position to judge.
An AP analysis of thousands of leaked Islamic State documents reveals most of its recruits from its earliest days knew little about Islam.
According to the documents, which were acquired by the Syrian opposition site Zaman al-Wasl and shared with AP, 70 percent of recruits were listed as having just “basic” knowledge of Shariah — the lowest possible choice. Around 24 percent were categorized as having an “intermediate” knowledge, and just 5 percent were considered advanced students of Islam.
The group preys on this ignorance, because it allows extremists to impose an interpretation of Islam constructed to suit its goal of maximum territorial expansion and carnage as soon as recruits come under its sway.
Among the documents were forms for nine of the 10 young men from the eastern French city of Strasbourg recruited — like the European convert — by a man named Mourad Fares. One of them, Karim Mohammad-Aggad, described going barhopping with Fares. He told investigators that IS recruiters used “smooth talk” to persuade him.
He traveled with his younger brother and friends to Syria in late 2013. Seven of them returned to France within a few months and were arrested. Two died in Syria, while his 23-year-old brother, Foued, returned as one of the men who stormed the Bataclan on Nov. 13 2015, in a night of attacks killed 130 people in Paris.
“My religious beliefs had nothing to do with my departure,” Karim Mohammad-Aggad told the court before he was sentenced to nine years in prison. “Islam was used to trap me like a wolf,” he said, according to court documents.
When pressed by the judge on his knowledge of Shariah, Islamic law, and how IS implements it, Mohammad-Aggad appeared dumbfounded, saying repeatedly: “I don’t have the knowledge to answer the question.”
One of his co-defendants, Radouane Taher, was also asked by the judge about whether beheadings conformed to Islamic law.
He couldn’t say for sure, answering: “I don’t have the authority.”
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer with experience with Mideast extremist organizations, said most who claim allegiance to IS are “reaching for a sense of belonging, a sense of notoriety, a sense of excitement.”
“Religion is an afterthought,” said Skinner, who now works for the Soufan Group security consultancy.
Those who truly crave religious immersion would go to Al-Azhar in Cairo, he added, referring to the thousand-year-old seat of learning for Shariah and Quranic studies among Sunni Muslims.
The Soufan Group has said the IS group’s most active supporters often grapple with questions of identity and lack the knowledge about Islam to challenge its ideologues.
Take Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, friends from the British city of Birmingham who joined IS. They were arrested after returning to Britain, and their 2014 trial revealed they had ordered “The Koran for Dummies” and “Islam for Dummies” books in preparation for their trip to Syria.
Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan says that a look at top IS commanders shows that many are not accredited scholars, but instead once held senior positions under Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist government.
Ramadan, who teaches Islamic Studies at Oxford University and has written numerous books on Islam and the integration of Muslims in Europe, says Islamic scholars must challenge the radical discourse of groups such as IS.
“These are people distorting the message, not being equipped religiously speaking,” Ramadan said. “Muslims around the world have the duty to respond to this in a very articulated way.”