You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Three Types of People Who Fight for ISIS

A breakdown of the most evil group on the planet


In February 2012, a young, beefy Egyptian named Islam Yaken took a shirtless selfie and posted it on a Facebook competitor called The picture wouldn’t have attracted attention outside his circle of friends, were it not for the photos of himself he tweeted two years later. In that time, the Wahlberg wannabe with tidy, cropped hair had transmogrified into a bushy-haired hipster with heavy-rimmed glasses--who had gone to fight for ISIS. The jihadi accessories in his new photos included a Kalashnikov, a sword, and a bucket of Shia heads.

When Yaken’s pictures went viral a month ago, they provoked confusion about how this well-educated, urban gym-rat could so rapidly embrace a group known for its austere, backward-looking form of desert Islam. The same confusion reigns over the transformation of Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary, the former stoner who rapped in London under the name “L Jinny”1 and is now a suspect in the murder of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. There is, of course, an obvious continuity between the Yaken who yanked his towel well below the pube-line to give a full glimpse of his abs and the narcissistic poseur now in Syria, as well as a thread of miscreance that runs through the life of Abdel-Bary. 

Islam Yaken, the "Hipster Jihadi."

But not everyone who joins ISIS is the type to trade protein shakes and doobies for scimitars and explosive belts. Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now with the Soufan Group, estimates a total roster of 10,000 to 15,000 ISIS fighters, of whom a small fraction may be foreigners. By now, a loose taxonomy of ISIS supporters has emerged, and in it, we see how the group’s rapid expansion also makes it vulnerable. 

Before going to Syria, Yaken took a religious turn. But both he and Abdel-Bary appear to have more taste for grindhouse than Islamic jurisprudence—and that makes them exemplars of the most lurid and photogenic of the three types of ISIS fighter. Call them the Psychopaths. Skinner says the foreigners tend to be hyperviolent, and the indigenous fighters (and the local population who passively supports them) saner and more practical. One need merely look at Yaken’s sword-wielding photo to note its theatricality: The blade is a fantasy design, half hunting knife and half Chinese dao, with hooks, a teardrop-shaped hole, and serration that serve no function but to look cool. And that, of course, is the point. As men without significant military training—like most jihadis from Western or upper-class backgrounds—their main purpose is to create grotesque propaganda and, perhaps, to perform the low-skill role of blowing themselves up.

The second group is more pious. Call them the True Believers. They are drawn to the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi—a man with a deep, if also horrifying and heterodox, understanding of Islam. Among the Europeans who have flocked to Raqqa, Syria—the seat of the Islamic State—one sees not just blood-spattered young men but families. (In fact, Yaken, crossing taxonomic categories, encouraged his mother to immigrate.) Many of these people have come to Syria out of an inalterable sense of authentic religious obligation. According to The Independent, ISIS boasts a Tunisian with a doctorate in telecommunications to run its phone grid. It would seem safe to assume that a man immersed in this bureaucratic task does not also have a penchant for producing gore-porn.

And that leaves the third and final group—perhaps the least appalling but likely the largest and most important. Call them the Sunni Pragmatists. These include Iraqi tribal sheikhs, whose allegiance to ISIS originates not in a cultish death wish but in a desire to win security and well-being, and who seem to be using the Psychopaths and the True Believers as convenient allies. From ISIS, the Pragmatists get a way to punish Baghdad for its long neglect of Sunni regions. From the Pragmatists, ISIS already got a greased path into Iraq that allowed their tiny force to cover large amounts of ground and fulfill the True Believers’ goal of rapid expansion, à la the forces of the Prophet Muhammad in the earliest days of Islam. ISIS’s extension into Iraq happened quickly both because many Sunnis cooperated, and because the Shia-led central government had incredibly weak holds on northern, mostly Sunni cities like Mosul. I observed the dereliction of Iraqi army bases in Mosul in late 2012, and it was clear even then that a serious invading force would face roughly as much resistance as Clark W. Griswold and family encountered at Wally World. To hold all that new territory, now that ISIS forces are spread thin 300 miles beyond Raqqa, will require ongoing buy-in from their local Sunni allies. 

At least some of the Sunni Pragmatists are ex-Baathists—colleagues of Saddam Hussein who have survived to fight again. The Naqshabandi militia, controlled by Saddam’s vice president, Izzat Ibrahim al Douri (a potential body double for Bryan Cranston), has periodically worked with ISIS to fight the Shia government of Nuri al Maliki. Like his old boss, Douri is no Islamist, which shows just how cynical his alliance with the True Believers has been—and how much more malleable his motivations and goals are than those of his True Believing and Psychopathic counterparts.

The other Sunni Pragmatists are the tribal sheikhs, who occupy the large, sparsely populated western Iraqi province of Anbar, between Syria and the central axis of cities—Mosul, Tikrit, Baghdad—on the outer-boundary of where ISIS operates. During the U.S. occupation, the Anbar sheikhs enjoyed vast amounts of CIA money, as well as trucking contracts, and (under the Sons of Iraq program) government funds for their tribal militias. But since the Americans left Iraq and began dealing only with the Maliki government, they have been shut out of politics and oil revenue.

ISIS has labored mightily to make these Sunnis feel welcome. “[ISIS fighters] infiltrate, often in military uniforms,” says Jakub Wrzesniewski, a Canadian political scientist who studies Anbar tribal politics. “But once they control territory, they announce a meeting at the mosque and a blanket amnesty for those willing to swear allegiance to the Islamic State.” The alternative is generally death. But it’s uncharacteristically big-hearted of ISIS to offer the option.

Some Sunni tribes have resisted ISIS’s charms. Take the Abu Risha, who during the occupation accepted U.S. largesse with particular enthusiasm. They realize that cordial relations with ISIS are impossible and have declared themselves ISIS’s enemies. But other Anbar tribes, too, struck deals during the occupation, and if they can get an equally sweet deal today—something like Kurdistan-level autonomy, plus a taste of the crude and lots of guns—there’s every reason to think they’ll ditch ISIS and bid an unfond farewell to the Psychopaths and True Believers who were probably unpleasant guests and neighbors anyway. “This is a marriage of convenience,” Wrzesniewski says, “and the sheikhs are hoping for a violent divorce.”

The head of the Dulaimi tribe, Anbar’s largest, is reportedly already negotiating the loot he’ll get from the United States if he separates from ISIS. The details could be complicated, since there are no longer any Americans around to guarantee the safety and prosperity of the Sunnis. But if the negotiations are successful and the sheikhs bail on ISIS, jihadi trucks will immediately be sent scurrying back toward the Syrian border—and the ones that aren’t picked off by American drones will inherit a shrunken, less fearsome caliphate.

  1. "L Jinny," one assumes, is a play on "Al-jinni," or in English, "the Genie." In the Koran and in pre-Islamic mythology, genies were supernatural beings, both good and evil. Abdel-Bary was evidently steeped in the religious vocabulary of Islam long before he became violent.