IS Impact on the Arab 'Youth Bulge'


Regardless of the Middle East country where a conflict ignites, the speed with which it spreads and the consequences it has on the whole region prove the deep level of interconnectivity among these nations. The domino effect of the recent crisis in Iraq can already be seen in neighbouring countries, mainly in the young generation. Mihai Pătru analyses this phenomenon in Saudi, Jordan and Syria

Far from being a purely theological conflict, the current situation in Iraq is the harvest of the post-2003 Iraqi leadership’s strategy to encourage exclusionary attitudes and marginalisation policies towards different groups of the Iraqi society, especially the Sunnis. Additionally, the long years of instability, rampant corruption, political crisis, mismanagement of resources and their uneven distribution brought Iraq’s unity on the brink. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the leadership of the country has failed to overcome these challenges. Despite the assistance offered by Washington, the Iraqis missed ‘the opportunity to claim their own future’, as President Obama underlined in a statement on the recent crisis, thus providing breeding ground for the existence of terrorist groups and their activities.

The current crisis might send Iraq’s future into the open arms of Caliph Ibrahim, alias Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Sunni terrorist group recently rebranded as the Islamic State (IS) – previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – whose activity in the region is well known. His announcement issued at the end of July concerning the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate generated a lot of concern. It was not Al-Baghdadi’s Islamist and radical ideas and ambitious goal to revive the initial Islamic Caliphate – a mission impossible by all means – that worried Middle Eastern leaders. Their worries are generated by his capacity to inspire and attract especially the Sunni male young populace from all over the region. It is well known that more than half of the total population in the Arab world is under 25 and that one out of five is between 15 and 24 years old.1

Saudi Concerns

Less affected than expected by the 2011 Arab Spring during which the Gulf Royals managed to be a step ahead of any potential challenges, the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are more vulnerable now than ever. According to INEGMA, a UAE-based research group, about 5,500 Gulf nationals are active members in the IS fighting squads with estimates showing that 4,000 of them are Saudis.2

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni youth seems to be more prone to take on the IS call to arms than their neighbours from other Gulf monarchies. There is no doubt that the number of IS volunteers from this Gulf Kingdom will increase following the attention received both by this group’s activities in Iraq and Syria, and by its leader’s announcement of the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. Stories about Saudis joining the IS have gained a lot of attention in the media.

The most recent one refers to a Saudi doctor who was killed either in a blown up car or while treating the IS injured militants. Also, a lot of coverage was received by the Saudi Islamic chant singer and former imam at a mosque in Riyadh who joined the terrorist group last April, and is currently believed to serve as an imam at Al-Nour Mosque in Mosul.

The Saudi youth’s interest in the mirage promised by the terrorist group and their willingness to sacrifice everything is explained by the officials in Riyadh as a consequence of psychological pressure, since they are ‘brainwashed into thinking that they would be cowards and unfaithful if they don’t join these groups’.3

The previous al-Qaeda experience and terrorist actions perpetrated in the mid-2000s by the returning Saudis after fighting under al-Qaeda’s flag in Afghanistan demand the firmest reactions on the part of the Kingdom’s leadership. The authorities in Riyadh have recently launched a broader governmental campaign meant to discourage the youth to follow the jihadists’ call and to raise awareness among their families. This July, the Saudi Undersecretary for Islamic affairs, Tawfeeq Al-Sudairi, launched the Sakina campaign which aims at deterring Islamist ideology and the IS rhetoric. Previously, in March this year, King Abdullah issued a royal order increasing the punishment from three to 20 years in prison for those Saudis who flee the country and join terrorist groups abroad. In June, another royal order was issued calling for all necessary measures to be taken to protect national security after the recent developments in Iraq.

Jordan: Signs of Drought in the ‘Oasis of Stability’?

Almost asphyxiated by the 1.3 million Syrian refugees that fled their home country in the context of the current civil war and under considerable pressure due to challenging social and economic problems, Jordan is trying to fight any potential spillover from the Iraqi crisis and halt the spread of the IS propaganda within the Kingdom.

The southern city of Ma’an, already known as a source of public discontent against the leadership in Amman, witnessed angry demonstrations in June-end organised by Jordanian supporters of IS. Following Friday prayers, about 100 people took over the main streets of the city and raised the already infamous black battle flag on the main mosque’s roof, pledging their support for IS and its leader. The growing success that IS enjoys in Jordan is not a surprise considering that about 1800 Jordanians are believed to be fighting under the terrorist organisation’s flag in Syria and Iraq, while less and less people are willing to join al-Qaeda.4 On the same note, a coalition of young Jihadists, known by the name of the ‘Sons of the Call for Tawhid and Jihad’, pledged allegiance to the IS calling al-Qaeda and its leaders ‘illegitimate’, and encouraging their supporters to join Al-Baghdadi’s terrorist group.

Internally pressured by IS supporters, and externally by IS fighters themselves who unsuccessfully attempted to occupy Tarbil, the only border crossing between Iraq and Jordan, the Kingdom’s officials are not the only ones struggling to fight the internal spread of the IS influence. Losing their popularity among the young generation, several Jordanian Islamist parties such as the Islamic Action Front took a public stand against the actions of the IS. Some of the most influential Islamist voices in the country also expressed their disapproval. Assem Barqawi, also known as Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, the spiritual mentor to the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Iraqi al-Qaeda leader killed by a US airstrike in Baghdad in 2006, publicly denounced the establishment of the Caliphate as a ‘rush job’, calling it ‘null and void’. A similar tone was shared by Abu Qatada, a hardline cleric and terror suspect, who called IS supporters ‘deviants’ and accused Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi of ‘heresy’ since he appointed himself caliph.

Syria: Caught in Between

Unlike the Gulf monarchies and Jordan, which have a centralised apparatus capable to combat the IS propaganda from spreading and attracting the young generation of Sunnis, the continuous chaos in Syria has become a breeding ground for the terrorist group. Exhausted by the civil war, the Syrian population is looking for alternatives considering that neither the numerous, conflicting opposition groups, nor the regime in Damascus is able to mobilise the population, and provide them with a reason to stand up against the IS. Despite the drastic and inhumane measures imposed by the latter’s leadership in the controlled areas or the severe punishments inflicted on those refusing to comply with the new rules, the young Sunni population seems willing to side with Al-Baghdadi’s men and secure their life. As absurd as it may seem, the IS gives a false impression of stability and order in a wartorn country where siding with the wrong group is a death sentence. Ridiculous initiatives like the matchmaking service, the Islamic State version of the famous OK Cupid, aiming to find a Syrian soulmate for IS fighters, or honeymoon tours running from Syria’s Raqa to Iraq’s Anbar have gained a lot of popularity and represent an additional guarantee for survival.

The 2011 Arab uprisings demonstrated that the local ‘youth bulge’ is capable of generating change, and that young voices should no longer be ignored. Three years later, in the context of the Iraqi crisis, the Islamic State has succeeded in attracting part of the Sunni Arab youth by mimicking an alternative to their problems and solutions to their disappointments with the ruling regimes. Having direct influence on the Sunni youth from neighbouring countries, the Islamic State propaganda might serve as an example for terrorist organisations based in other parts of the region and trigger a domino effect, putting in danger the stability of the entire Arab world.

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Mihai Pătru

Mihai Pătru is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Bucharest and a non-resident researcher at the Romanian Diplomatic Institute.

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    1 United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and the United Nations Programme on Youth, Regional Overview: Youth in the Arab Region, 2011

    2 Raji Unnikrishnan, “5,500 Gulf citizens fighting with ISIS”, Gulf Daily News, July 14, 2014,

    3 Arab News, Govt. plan in place to counter IS rhetoric, July, 22, 2014,

    4 Taylor Luck, “Abu Qatada denounces Islamic State caliphate”, The Jordan Times, July 15, 2014,

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