Iraqi military intelligence analysts have found that many "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) elements completed some form of higher education, a top intelligence official told Iraqi media earlier this month.
The group was able to benefit from this knowledge base to manufacture banned weapons and build communication and surveillance systems, according to Maj. Gen. Saad al-Allaq, head of Iraq's military intelligence.
Recruits with expertise in combat planning, management and medicine also used their skills to serve ISIS, he said, as did those with skills related to the extraction of oil and mineral wealth, which was sold to raise funds.
The findings are in line with those published in an October 2016 report by the World Bank, "Economic and Social Inclusion to Prevent Violent Extremism".
The World Bank study used basic socio-economic data on 3,803 foreign ISIS recruits from a leaked cache of the group's personnel records, dating from around 2014, to draw its conclusions.
"We find that ISIS did not recruit its foreign workforce among the poor and less educated, but rather the opposite," it said. "Instead, the lack of economic inclusion seems to explain the extent of radicalization into violent extremism."
According to the World Bank report, 69% of ISIS recruits reported at least a secondary education, with only 15% leaving school before high school.
The report echoes the findings of earlier studies that show unemployment among the educated leads to a greater probability to hold radical ideas.
With this in mind, Iraqi experts who spoke with Diyaruna underscored the importance of adopting effective plans and programmes that would prevent ISIS from recruiting educated individuals.
Confronting recruitment efforts
By monitoring the evolutionary stages ISIS has gone through, Iraqi intelligence services have honed in on "a very dangerous matter", strategic and political affairs researcher Amir al-Saidi told Diyaruna.
"The prevailing wisdom was that the group heavily relied on children and youth who were not very educated, as they are easily deceived and their religious fervour easily stirred," he said.
But intelligence services and others have confirmed that a significant number of university educated individuals who are experienced in their fields joined ISIS, "which requires analysts and experts to take notice", he said.
"We face a huge challenge in the form of confronting recruitment efforts by terrorists, particularly targeting educated individuals," al-Saidi said.
This will be more difficult than confronting ISIS in ground warfare, as it relates to overcoming extremist thinking and ideologies, he said.
"Cultural, educational and religious institutions must take an active role in adopting programmes that can appeal to all segments of society, including degree holders, that would prevent them from falling prey to terrorists," he said.
Addressing widespread unemployment, especially among educated people, is an important component of countering terrorism, said Issam al-Fayli, who teaches political sciences at al-Mustansiriyah University.
While it was in control of large swathes of Iraq, ISIS tried to lure people to join with money and benefits rather than threats, to convince the educated yet unemployed to join its ranks, he told Diyaruna.
"We would often hear about the death or arrest of ISIS experts who were experienced in making weapons and chemical bombs, as well as those who could lead communications, online hacking or drone operations," he said.
Preventing an ISIS comeback
To confront this type of threat in the future, al-Fayli said, all government institutions must work in concert to help young people develop their skills and interests, and direct their energy and talents into building their communities.
ISIS used its educated elements in areas that require specialised knowledge and skills, reserving its low-level work for underaged or uneducated youth it had indoctrinated, said Ninawa provincial council member Ali Khudair.
"We are doing everything to prevent ISIS from making a comeback and luring and deceiving our youth with the goal of recruiting them," he told Diyaruna.
Khudair called on the government to focus on developing local communities that were affected by the ISIS incursion or are facing economic hardships.
Local economies need to be revived by opening doors to investment that would provide jobs for the unemployed and adopting strategies that would fight poverty, illiteracy and other societal ills, he said.