According to the documents, 70 per cent of recruits who were asked to rate their knowledge of Islam and Shariah through a series of multiple choice questions, were found to have just “basic” knowledge – the lowest possible choice.
Around 24 percent were categorised as having an “intermediate” knowledge, and just 5 percent were considered advanced students of Islam according to the completed jihadi employment forms handed to a group of applicants in a hangar at the Syria-Turkey border.
The documents were acquired by the Syrian opposition site Zaman al-Wasl and shared with the Associated Press.
They demonstrate that the group preys upon this ignorance, because it allows extremists to impose an interpretation of Islam constructed to suit its goal of maximum territorial expansion and carnage as soon as recruits come under its sway.
At the height of IS’s drive for foot soldiers in 2013 and 2014, typical followers included the group of Frenchmen who went bar-hopping with their recruiter back home, the recent European convert who now hesitantly describes himself as gay, and two Britons who ordered “The Koran for Dummies” from Amazon to prepare for jihad in Syria.
They were grouped in safe houses as a stream of Islamic State group imams filled in the gaps, according to court testimony and interviews by the AP.
“I realised that I was in the wrong place when they began to ask me questions on these forms like ‘when you die, who should we call?’” said the 32-year-old European convert, speaking to AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
He went to Syria in 2014 and said new recruits were shown IS propaganda videos on Islam, and that the visiting imams repeatedly praised martyrdom. Far from home and unschooled in religion, most of the recruits were in little position to judge.
Among the documents were recruitment forms for nine of the 10 young men from the eastern French city of Strasbourg recruited - like the European convert - by a man named Mourad Fares. One of them, Karim Mohammad-Aggad, described going barhopping with Fares. He told investigators that IS recruiters used “smooth talk” to persuade him.
He traveled with his younger brother and friends to Syria in late 2013. Seven of them returned to France within a few months and were arrested. Two died in Syria, while his 23-year-old brother, Foued, returned as one of the men who stormed the Bataclan on 13 November 2015, in a night of attacks killed 130 people in Paris.
“My religious beliefs had nothing to do with my departure,” Karim Mohammad-Aggad told the court before he was sentenced to nine years in prison. “Islam was used to trap me like a wolf,” he added, according to court documents.
When pressed by the judge on his knowledge of Shariah, Islamic law, and how IS implements it, Mohammad-Aggad appeared dumbfounded, saying repeatedly: “I don’t have the knowledge to answer the question.”
One of his co-defendants, Radouane Taher, was also asked by the judge about whether beheadings conformed to Islamic law.
He couldn’t say for sure, answering: “I don’t have the authority.”
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer with experience with Mideast extremist organizations, said most who claim allegiance to IS are “reaching for a sense of belonging, a sense of notoriety, a sense of excitement.”
“Religion is an afterthought,” said Skinner, who now works for the Soufan Group security consultancy.
Those who truly crave religious immersion would go to Al-Azhar in Cairo, he added, referring to the thousand-year-old seat of learning for Shariah and Quranic studies among Sunni Muslims.
The Soufan Group has said the IS group’s most active supporters often grapple with questions of identity and lack the knowledge about Islam to challenge its ideologues.
Take Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, friends from Birmingham who joined IS. They were arrested after returning to Britain, and their 2014 trial revealed they had ordered “The Koran for Dummies” and “Islam for Dummies” books in preparation for their trip to Syria.
Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan says that a look at top IS commanders shows that many are not accredited scholars, but instead once held senior positions under Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist government.
Ramadan, who teaches Islamic Studies at Oxford University and has written numerous books on Islam and the integration of Muslims in Europe, says Islamic scholars must challenge the radical discourse of groups such as IS.
“These are people distorting the message, not being equipped religiously speaking,” Ramadan said. “Muslims around the world have the duty to respond to this in a very articulated way.”