The Salafi-Jihadist Movement in Iraq: Recruitment Methods and Arab Volunteers

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 23

This is the second in a two-part series on al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq. This article focuses on the Salafi-jihadist base from which al-Zarqawi draws support and new recruits.

The experience of Arab fighters in Iraq is the latest and most important development of the global Salafi-jihadi movement, as they constitute the third generation of Salafi-jihadists. An examination of the social structure of these fighters provides important insights into this generation and the similarities and differences with the previous two generations.

While the secrecy surrounding foreign fighters in Iraq and the lack of impartial sources on their activities make the collection of quality information very difficult, “Islamic Forums” have become a key outlet for information. These forums specialize in providing information on slain fighters, and in recent times have divulged the names and details of 429 such fighters in Iraq [1]. The analysis in this article is largely based on these figures.

Two recent articles have extensively studied the phenomenon of “Arab Volunteers” in Iraq. The first is by Israeli researcher Reuven Paz, who has analyzed 154 names and found that 94 (61%) were Saudis and came from the following regions: 61 from Najd, 12 from Qassim Burida, 7 from Mecca and Hijaz, 5 from the South and 2 from the North [2]. Paz also found that these Saudis perpetrated 23 suicide attacks, and that roughly 45% of the suicide bombers were from Najd.

The remaining fighters found in Paz’s study were: 16 Syrians (10.4%); 13 Iraqis (8.4%); 11 Kuwaitis (7.1%); 4 Jordanians, and 2 from Algeria, Morocco and Yemen each; and one each from Palestine, United Arab Emirates and Sudan.

Paz also noted that their ages ranged from 25-30 years. Some of them were married, some were holders of higher education degrees, most of them went to Iraq through a friend or relative, and the majority came from neighboring countries.

The second article is a study by Anthony Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, who question the credibility of the lists published by al-Qaeda supporters, and contend that they were published for mobilization and recruitment purposes [3]. They also argue that many of persons mentioned in the list have been found to be living in Saudi Arabia and were never involved in jihadi activities in the first place. But the Saudi magazine “Al-Osbu’iah” and had previously published a report based on the same list and no response was forthcoming from the people whose names were mentioned [4].

Using methodology and information generated by the aforementioned articles, this article furthers studies the social structure of Salafi-jihadists in Iraq by analyzing the following factors: country of origin (geography), age, marital status and participation in other conflicts.


Based on a list of mujahideen posted on the al-Saha web forum (, the ranks of the Salafi-jihadists fighting in Iraq—most of whom are part of Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq organization—come from all over the Arab World, with Saudis being the majority (200 fighters – 53%), 13% from Syria, 8% from Iraq, 5.8% from Jordan, 4% from Kuwait, 3.8% from Libya, with the rest distributed among other countries (see Chart 1) while the geographical origin of 52 names remains unknown.

While these numbers are not comprehensive, they do give an idea as to the complexion of the mujahideen in Iraq, and indicate that the largest percentage belongs to countries surrounding Iraq, presumably because accessing Iraq is easiest for these fighters. Moreover, jihadi leaders in neighboring countries (particularly in Saudi Arabia) regularly call on mujahideen to join the jihad in American-occupied Iraq. In addition, the on-going conflict between the Saudi regime and the Saudi al-Qaeda network is forcing many young Saudi Salafi-jihadists to migrate to Iraq. Many of these jihadis are prominent fighters and ideological trainers; a good example being the Salafi-jihadist ideologue Abdullah Rashid al-Rashoud, whom Zarqawi eulogized after he was slain by American forces near al-Qaim.

In addition, there are many North Africans—principally Moroccans, Algerians and Libyans, among Arab fighters. This is because local Salafi-jihadist movements in these countries are in conflict with their governments. Therefore, as in Saudi Arabia, overwhelming security pressures are forcing fighters to search for new havens.

Interestingly, in the list posted on the al-Saha forum, the number of local Iraqis among the ranks of the Salafi-jihadists is very low (around 8%), which indicates that insurgent Iraqis prefer to join indigenous “nationalist” resistance networks, rather then foreign-led extremist ideological movements. Another interesting fact is that Egyptians no longer represent a significant constituency among Arab fighters as was the case in Afghanistan and Bosnia. This is primarily because the role of jihadist movements has receded in Egypt and many former leaders of jihadist organizations have now publicly renounced violent methods.

Finally, it is worth re-iterating the seriousness of the threat posed by returnees from the Iraq conflict, especially in light of recent reports that the United States intends to substantially reduce its forces in Iraq over the next two years. The Arab volunteers in Iraq are acquiring cutting-edge fighting skills, and are exposed to an extremely powerful ideological influence in an environment of total war, characterized by concepts such as wala’ and bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) and mufasala (dissociation). It is imperative on the authorities of neighboring countries to devise effective rehabilitation programs and avoid resorting to typical security solutions.

Age, Education, Recruitment and Previous Combat Experience

Out of the 429 fighters listed in the al-Saha study, only the ages of 85 are known. Based on these statistics the average age of foreign fighters in Iraq is 27. Moreover, out of 429 fighters only 22 (5.1%) have had fighting experience in other regions, demonstrating that the foreign fighters in Iraq do indeed constitute the third generation of Salafi-jihadists. Furthermore, the average age is similar to that of the Saudi fighters whose names were released in the new list of the 36 most wanted [5].

It is worth noting that 17 out of 31 fighters (58.6% – only 31 of the 429 had data available on education) quit their education to join the fight against the American occupation. This is also evident in the high percentage of BA degree holders (19.4%), which is different from what typically occurs in Salafi-jihadist movements, whose ideologues are normally the ones with high levels of education while the fighters are mostly young men who have not completed their education (see table 2).

Another interesting fact is that 22 of those fighters are married, and among those whose career status is known, 8 out of 18 (44%) work in the private sector, with some even being investors. This lends further credence to the notion that the occupation of Iraq, and all the excesses that surrounds it, is generating new developments in erstwhile socio-economically stable Salafi-jihadi networks.

Finally, in regards to recruitment, the majority of those coming from the same area, for instance Burida in Qassim or Hael in Saudi Arabia, have entered Iraq together or were recruited through relatives. This is evident in the recurrent names of major tribes such as Shammari, Otaibi, Shahri and Motairi, which indicates that kinship and friendship are major modes of recruitment.


American-occupied Iraq is both the catalyst and incubator for the birth and evolution of the third generation of Salafi-jihadists. Without the Iraqi theater, the entire al-Qaeda-inspired global jihad movement would be faced with critical ideological and recruitment problems.

It is compellingly clear that the American occupation of Iraq, with its associated human rights abuses such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, has played a major role in driving young men to join al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations. At the same time, it is equally clear that the ¬Salafi-jihadist discourse does not appeal to Muslims in general and Iraqis in particular. Indeed, despite the changes to their socio-economic make-up, recruitment into Salafi-jihadist networks is still primarily based on kinship and friendship and not only on their religious-political ideology.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from assessing the make-up al-Zarqawi’s fighters in Iraq. First, as long as the United States remains in Iraq as an increasingly unpopular occupation force, more young people will be drawn to radical Islamist movements. Second, Arab countries—especially those neighboring Iraq—need to begin planning in earnest for the arrival of Iraq returnees. It is imperative for these countries to design effective cultural and political programs to deal with these young men and reintegrate them into society, and not simply resort to the already tried-and-failed security solutions.


1. This list has been published in 3 parts in a variety of online Islamist forums. The author downloaded the list from the al-Saha Forum

2. Reuven Paz, Arab Volunteers killed in Iraq: an Analysis, Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, PRISM, Series of Global Jihad, No. 1/3 – March 2005.

3. See: Anthony H. Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, Saudi Militants in Iraq: Assessment and Kingdom’s Response (revised September 19, 2005), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

4. Mustfa al-Ansari, “Asma’a al-Muqatleen al-Saudieen fi al-Iraq”, (the Names of Saudi Fighters in Iraq), Al-Osbu’iah, Issue 40, 13 June, 2005, also see this link:

5. See two articles by the author in the Jordanian newspaper, al-Ghad: “Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia: the Determinants of Age and Participation in Fighting”, Jan. 6, 2005; and “The Future of the Salafi-Jihadist Way in Saudi Arabia”, July 7, 2005.