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A Comparison of Foreign Fighters: ISIS and AQI

Ever since the Islamic State rose to prominence, the linkages to its predecessor—Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—have been the subject of intense research and analysis. After its degradation at the hands of a multinational coalition in Iraq between 2005-2009, AQI (or the Islamic State of Iraq as it was known after 2007) underwent a period of organizational restructuring, strategic planning, and recruiting. The subsequent emergence of a rebranded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—and its ensuing success—makes any information on its predecessor incredibly valuable for those seeking to comprehend and mitigate the threats posed by ISIS in the contemporary operating environment. 

Documents recovered in 2007 in Sinjar, Iraq contained detailed information on the background and attributes of foreign fighters joining AQI in the Middle East. The documents were analyzed and compiled into a dataset by a joint team from the Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) and US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), producing tangible insights into the demographics of foreign fighters and the logistics of trafficking those individuals into the operational theater. A similar set of documents—recovered in 2015—contained valuable information on the recruitment and logistics procedures of the Islamic State. This project conducts a statistical analysis of the two data sets to establish linkages between the two organizations. This analysis seeks to inform and support future policy in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State and any future manifestations of the two groups. 

The analysis covers four broad research questions: 1) What factors influence a foreign fighter’s decision to volunteer as a suicide bomber? 2) What domestic political, social, and economic factors influence foreign fighters to join ISIS in Syria? 3) How do AQI and ISIS traffic foreign fighters into conflict zones? 4) Which ISIS fighters left the organization and why?