Moroccan study doubles official number of ISIS recruits from Spain

450 citizens or residents said to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadists over last two years

Still shot of an ISIS video showing European jihadists.
Still shot of an ISIS video showing European jihadists.Reuters

Up to 450 citizens or residents of Spain have traveled to Syria and Iraq over the last two years to join the Islamic State (ISIS), according to a study by a Moroccan think tank.

The figure more than doubles the official number of Spain-based recruits estimated by the Interior Ministry, which talks about 190 individuals.

ISIS has experts in human resources, communication and marketing

Eva Moya, advisor to the National Police

The new estimate was put forward by the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies, which partners with Spain’s Elcano Institute on research issues, at the Fourth Global Terrorism Forum.

Center president Mohammed Benhammou presented the study, which finds that a total of 47,000 foreign combatants have traveled to ISIS camps over the study period.

Of these, 7,000 are European citizens, including 1,700 from France, 850 from Belgium, 650 from Germany and 170 from Sweden.

Up-to-date intel

The Spanish Interior Ministry said that its own data is updated with information from the National Intelligence Center (CNI) and the Intelligence Center Against Terrorism and Organized Crime (CITCO).

The average recruit is a young married man with two children and either high school or university studies, said Carola García-Calvo, a researcher for Elcano Institute’s Global Terrorism Program. “Around 16% of the total are women; we began noticing this trend starting in 2012.”

García-Calvo said that “second-generation immigrants” are the most vulnerable to recruiters’ message.

She also noted that poor social integration into their host countries can no longer fully explain this radicalization, because many of these recruits have similar social and labor situations as the average citizen.

“They are businessmen, students, self-employed workers, service providers,” she said.

Online search

In Spain, recruitment is mostly carried out online. This year, counter-terrorism experts discovered an increase in references to Spain in jihadist propaganda messages.

“They don’t use Facebook or Twitter all that much anymore, preferring more concealed networks,” said Eva Moya, an expert on social media who has advised the National Police on online terrorism. “They are good at instant messaging applications like Snapchat.”

Moya explained that ISIS is growing increasingly professional about its recruitment work.

“They have experts in human resources, communication and marketing. They analyze the weak points of their most vulnerable targets and try to ensnare them.”

In 2015, Spain approved a National Plan to Fight Jihadism. The first measure was the creation of a platform called Stop Radicalismos, which includes a mobile app and a telephone that citizens may use to report possible cases of jihadist radicalization.

García-Calvo said this initiative is “a good early detection tool” but added that there should also be more awareness campaigns.

The average recruit is a young married man with two children and either high school or university studies

“We need inclusive programs, transparency and information. And it is very important to work directly with the Muslim community, so they won’t feel that they are being targeted.”

In August, Spanish counter-terrorism authorities issued an alert about “the increase in mentions of our country” in propaganda material produced by ISIS, including text documents, videos and graphs.

“The progressive increase of texts and releases translated into Spanish is giving our country growing relevance from a propaganda point of view, and increasing the possibility of action by an autonomous terrorist working on our territory,” terrorism experts said at the time.

English version by Susana Urra.

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