AOAV: all our reportsUnderstanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Recruitment

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.


Although information on individual suicide bombers is occasionally limited, some recently leaked documents offer insight into the people who join a terror organisation, as well as those who voluntarily sign up to conduct a martyrdom operation. The documents in question are the IS registration files, which were smuggled out of Syria by a former IS fighter. Although the documents only represent one organisation, it is one of the few large collections of data available through which some common basic traits can be identified.

The data consists of over 22,000 IS documents, all of which were application forms filled by those seeking to join IS. 4,173 individual applicants were identified in the files. The standard application form consists of 23 questions in Arabic and is stamped with an IS logo. The application forms, titled Bayanat Mujahed (‘the jihadi’s data’) appear to have been collected at an IS border crossing into Syria at the end of 2013.

An analysis of the leaked documents found that a typical IS fighter was male, 26 years old, single, reasonably well-educated but did not possess much knowledge about Islam and the Qu’ran.


The fighters in this dataset represent a remarkably diverse population, hailing from over 70 countries. However, there are two indicators in the form from which one can derive the nationality of the fighter and these are: nationality and the country of residence, and the following is the highlight of these numbers:

Wreckage of suicide car bombings in Baghdad, Iraq 2005. U.S. Army photo

Out of the 4,173 applicants, 3,244 indicated their citizenship. Among these, the highest number of recruits came from Saudi Arabia (579), whereas the second most represented nationality was Tunisian (559). Other well-represented nationalities were Moroccan (240), Turkish (212), Egyptian (151), and Russian (141).

Out of the 4173 applicants, 4,000 indicated their country of residence. Again, Saudi Arabia was the most represented (797), followed by Tunisia (649), Morocco (260), Turkey (244), Russia (210), and Egypt (194).

Age groups, marital status and education

The average age of an applicant was 26 to 27 years old. 61% of these prospective IS fighters stated that they were single, whilst 30% were married.

The leaked documents indicate that applicants’ educational level ranged from everything from completely uneducated to doctoral degrees. 33% applicants stated that they had a secondary level certificate, whereas 28% said they were at university or college level, and 17% said they had been educated to elementary or middle school level.

Recruits were also required to answer questions about their knowledge of Islam and the sharia, choosing from three options: basic, intermediate, and advanced.  A surprising 70% of applicants said they had only basic sharia educational level, whereas 23% said their level was intermediate. Only 5% said they had an advanced level of sharia education.

Prior jihadi experience and preferred fighting role

Application forms also enquired about the prospective members’ previous jihadi experience, including the location where this jihad had taken place and if the applicant had references who would recommend him. Interestingly, only 9.6% answered ‘yes’ on this question.

Three options were given in the application forms so that prospective IS members would choose whether they wanted to be soldiers, suicide bombers (Istishhadi) or Inghimasi fighters. 89% of the applicants selected to be fighters, whereas only 7% of the applicants selected to be suicide bombers; 5% said they preferred to be Inghimasi fighters. Apparently, these choices may be overruled by senior commanders in accordance with the group’s needs.

The 121 suicide bombers

Only 5%, or 121 individuals, found in the documents voluntarily signed up to be suicide bombers. Although this sample is small, it provides us with some key traits and characteristics among those willing to die for IS. In short, most of these individuals were generally well educated, mostly single, below the age of 30, and had little knowledge of sharia. The most common nationalities were Saudi (32), Tunisian (25) and Moroccan (18).

Age, marital status and education

69% of applicants said they were below 30 years old. 69% of the applicants also said they were single, including 24 out of the 32 Saudi nationals and 20 out of the 25 Tunisian nationals. .

74% of applicants said they held a secondary school certificate or a university degree. Those who said they had a university degree included 12 of the 32 Saudi would-be suicide bombers, 10 of the 25 Tunisians, and all three Lebanese nationals identified. On the other hand, 13 of the 18 Moroccan would-be suicide bombers said they only had an elementary education.

When asked about their knowledge of Islam, 72% of applicants requesting to become suicide bombers said they had basic knowledge of Islam and the sharia, including 23 of the 32 Saudi applicants and 16 of the 18 Moroccans.

Child suicide bombers

In June 2016, a council member of the Diyala Province said that a statistical study by the province’s authorities showed that half of the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Diyala were Iraqi teenagers recruited by IS. Most of these suicide attackers where relatives or sons of IS commanders or members.

According to the leaked IS documents, almost 400 recruits were under the age of 18, with 41 of those being 15 or younger when they arrived. However, this data only affirms the already existing information on IS’ use of children. According to a study that analysed data collected between January 2015 and January 2016, there were children who were presented by official IS reports as “martyrs”. Out of the 89 cases featured in this study, 39% died upon detonating a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) against their target.

Receiving training to become a suicide bomber is one of the many roles that children are being prepared for, according to “Children of Islamic State”, which looks into IS mobilisation of child recruitment and training for Jihad. Children are reportedly being used as Inghimasi fighters too.

In August 2016, a 13 year-old child wearing an explosive belt attempted to detonate it in the city of Kirkuk. Security forces managed to prevent him and the Iraqi police announced that Ashbal al-Khilafa (‘Cubs of the Caliphate’) were behind the attack attempt. In March 2016, a child aged 16 carried out a suicide attack in Alexandria town in southern Baghdad, which resulted in the death of 43 people, most of whom were children.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.