An analysis of four polls surveying Arab public opinion towards the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) reveals that the group has a bare minimum of 8.5 million strong supporters and that's a conservative estimate. If you include those who feel somewhat positively towards the Islamic State, the number rises to at least 42 million.
The estimate is based on a March 2015 poll by the Iraq-based Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies; a November 2014 poll by Zogby Research Services; another November 2014 poll by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and an October 2014 poll by the Fikra Forum commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The following is a breakdown of the support for the Islamic State in 11 Arab countries:
The November 2014 poll by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found that 2% of Iraqis view the Islamic State positively and another 4% view it positively to some extent. The March 2015 poll found that 5% do not consider the Islamic State to be a terrorist group.
With a population of 32,586,000 according to the CIA World Factbook, that means the Islamic State has between 651,720 and 1,955,160 supporters in Iraq.
Seventeen percent of Syrians said that they completely support the Islamic State's goals and activities in the March 2015 poll. That statistic grows to 27% when you account for Syrians who do not consider the Islamic State to be a terrorist group.
The November 2014 poll interviewed 900 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and found that 4% are positive towards the Islamic State and another 9% are somewhat positive. This should raise serious concerns for countries that are accepting refugees from the civil war.
With a population of 17,952,000, that means the Islamic State has between 3,051,840 and 4,847,040 supporters in Syria.
About 4% of Palestinians view the Islamic State positively but a shocking 20% feel the Islamic State is positive to some extent. This is the highest level of positivity towards the Islamic State in the November 2014 poll (which does not include Syria).
The CIA World Factbook says there are 1,816,000 Palestinians in Gaza and 2,731,000 in the West Bank, for a total of 4,547,000. This equates to a range of between 181,800 and 1,091,280 Palestinian supporters of the Islamic State.
The November 2014 poll found that Tunisia has the highest percentage of people who are view the Islamic State positively (7%). Another 6% view it somewhat positively. The finding is substantiated by assessments determining that Tunisia is the biggest source of foreign fighters for the Islamic State.
The country's population of 10,937,000 would include 765,590 people who are unequivocally supportive of the Islamic State; a number that grows to 1,421,810 if you include those who are somewhat positive.
The Fikra Forum poll from October 2014 found that 3% of Egyptians view the Islamic State very positively (1%) or fairly positively (2%). The March 2015 poll has 4% of Egyptians viewing the Islamic State positively and another 6% viewing it somewhat positively.
Egypt has an estimated population of 86,895,000. The number of those who view the Islamic State positively ranges from 86,895 to 347,580 depending on which poll has the more accurate number. If you include all of those with some positivity towards ISIS, the range is 260,685 to 8,689,500.
The Fikra Forum concluded that 2% of Saudis are very positive towards the Islamic State and 3% are fairly positive. The March 2015 poll has it at 5% positive and 5% somewhat positive.
Saudi Arabia has an estimated population of 27,346,000. The lowest statistic would mean that there are between 546,920 and 1,367,300 Saudis who are fully positive towards ISIS. If you include those who are somewhat positive, it is between 820,380 and 2,734,600 Saudis who are inclined towards the Islamic State.
United Arab Emirates
The Zogby poll from November 2014 found that 13% of the UAE's population most favors the Islamic State in the Syrian civil war. The country has a population of 5,629,000, translating to 731,770 Islamic State supporters.
Approximately 7% of Yemenis say they do not consider the Islamic State to be a terrorist group. The CIA World Factbook estimates Yemen's population to be 26,053,000. This equates to 1,823,710 people.
Only 3% of Jordanians view the Islamic State positively and another 6% view it somewhat positively. About 5% say they do not consider the Islamic State to be a terrorist group.
With a population of 7,930,000, this translates to 237,900 supporters on the low end and 713,700 on the high end.
An estimated 7% of Libyans do not consider the Islamic State to be a terrorist group. The estimated population is 6,244,000, placing the number of Islamic State supporters at 437,080.
The Fikra Forum poll found that support for the Islamic State is nearly non-existent in Lebanon with only 1% of the country's Sunnis seeing the Islamic State as fairly positive. The Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies had a similar conclusion.
The CIA World Factbook says that only 54% of the Lebanese population is Muslim. Of that Muslim population, only 27% is Sunni. The result indicates the presence of 8,578 Sunnis in Lebanon who view the Islamic State fairly positively.
If we use the most optimistic of the polls for each of the 11 Arab states, we come to an estimate of 8,523,803 supporters of the Islamic State and an average of 5.8% support in the Arab world. If we extend that average to the other 11 Arab countries with a total population of 370 million, you get a result of 21,460,000 strong supporters of the Islamic State in the Arab world overall.
This is in line with the November 2014 poll by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. It concluded that 85% of Arabs view the Islamic State negatively and 4% view it positively. The difference of 1.8% can be attributable to the margin of error in the polls and/or slight changes in opinion.
If we include the most pessimistic polls and include those who view the Islamic State somewhat positively, the result is 24,454,228 Arabs who view the Islamic State at least somewhat positively. If the average of 11.5% is consistent across the entire Arab world, then up to 42,550,000 Arabs view the Islamic State at least somewhat positively.
This second number is also in line with the November 2014 survey's conclusion that an additional 7% are somewhat supportive of the Islamic State for a total statistic of 11%.
With a minimum of 8.5 million strong supporters and 24.5 million who view the group at least somewhat positively, the Islamic State has plenty of room for growth in the Arab world.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.
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