by Andrin Hauri. He graduated from the University of Lausanne with a Master’s Degree in Political Science and holds a Diploma of Advanced Studies in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the University of Basel.
For decades, it has been the aspiration of many jihadist groups to secure and govern their own territory. The few groups actually proclaiming to have done so did it most often in the form of an Islamic emirate. However, the resurrection of the early Islamic empire, the caliphate, remained a distant vision. Even al-Qa’ida considered itself only a precursor for the eventual formation of such a caliphate in a utopian future. The Islamic State (IS) on the other hand felt no such constraints. Following its successes in 2013/2014, the terror group believed it had at its command the necessary manpower, money, and territory to make a plausible claim for an Islamic state. Against conventional wisdom, this has so far not redounded to IS’ detriment, but rather provided the terror group with a range of benefits that form crucial elements of its strategy. In the second part of this series of articles, the author argues that the caliphate is the second key factor for the success of IS.
Since its declaration in summer 2014, IS has imposed and refined its governance structures throughout the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. At the top is a council, which consists of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his two deputies, one responsible for operations in Iraq and the other for Syria. Underneath this council, there exist a number of other government bodies, such as the Military Council and the General Supervisory Committee, with various military or civilian functions. The quotidian tasks of IS’ civilian bureaucracy are largely carried out by so-called Diwans, institutions first introduced in 2007 which are similar to government departments or ministries. They encompass a similar range of functions as government departments in western states, from education and public services, to health, agriculture, public security, and defence. (Aymenn Al-Tamimi, “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 9, Issue 4, August 2015, p. 123f).
The range of documents produced by the caliphate indicate genuine efforts to administer the territories it controls, including regulations on fishing to preserve stocks, tax forms for electricity services, agricultural crop plans, and the issuing of identification cards for residents. (Al-Tamimi, “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration“, p. 124-5; Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool“, The New York Times, 22.07.2015). This information has to be treated with caution, however; some public services mentioned might only exist either partly or entirely on paper. Likewise, IS certainly did not create these services from scratch, but rather took over pre-existing structures and transformed them according to its needs. Often, the terror group employs the very same civil clerks in the same premises as the central Iraqi or Syrian government had done before it. This time around, however, they work under the threat of confiscation of their homes, or worse. Be it for this or other reasons, the efficiency of public services under IS has, in certain places, reportedly improved compared with before, especially in larger cities like Mosul. (Saleh Elias, “Services improve under IS in Mosul“, al-Monitor, 13.05.2015).The IS leadership thus appears willing to assume responsibility for governance and provide services to the local population. This is in stark contrast to al-Qa’ida, which has always been a parasitic organisation requiring the sanctuary of a benevolent state. After the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, this requirement severely hampered its capacity to commit further strikes on the West or exert influence in the Middle East as no state was willing to provide al-Qa’ida with a safe haven. By setting up its own state in areas of poor governance, IS’ approach seems to offer a solution to this problem. (Prem Mahadevan, “Resurgent Radicalism“, Strategic Trend, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich, chapter 3, 2015).
The declaration of the caliphate, however, has also caused IS significant detriment: Ever since, the terror group has needed to hold territory to remain legitimate and maintain governmental structures to rule it. By definition, a caliphate requires territorial authority. Without it, the caliphate would lose its religious power of attraction and legitimacy, and thus its propaganda value. The funding and recruiting pool would dry up. What is more, unlike other jihadist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, who also attempted to secure and govern a defined territory, IS not only needs to hold territory but also to constantly expand the caliphate in order to ideologically justify itself and maintain its claim of validity. However, by tying its legitimacy to the continued existence and expansion of a geographic entity, the terror group has also rendered itself physically attackable. In contrast, al-Qa’ida, a diffuse network of autonomous cells, could not be eliminated by force because when pressed it simply disappeared underground to fight another day. This is not an option for IS. Occasional terror attacks and hit-and-run tactics are inadequate to hold territory however. Therefore, by proclaiming a state IS has forced itself to engage in semi-conventional warfare, and this requires extensive manpower and military hardware, as well as competent leadership. (Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants“, The Atlantic, March 2015; Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder, “Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 9, Issue 4, August 2015, p. 108).
However, the declaration of the caliphate also provides IS with some crucial benefits for its endeavour. Up to now these benefits have far outweighed the disadvantages, making the caliphate one of the major factors explaining IS’ success. Firstly, the caliphate helps IS to attract thousands of Muslims to its cause, as well as its territory. Living under IS governance appears to be a tempting option for them given the sense of marginalisation they feel in their home countries. Furthermore, for many religious Sunnis the caliphate is not only a state but also a vehicle for salvation. As part of it, they can live a good, pious life under strict Muslim religious law and leadership — something they presume impossible somewhere else. (Wood, “What ISIS really wants“). The ability of IS to control territory also attracts many veteran jihadists from other war-torn places. For them, the caliphate is not only a huge source of inspiration but also constitutes an accessible sanctuary, where they can flock to wage jihad.
Secondly, controlling territory allows IS to engage in state-building and to provide public services to locals, which helps the terror group to secure their support and integrate itself into the social fabric. Usually, insurgency groups have to appeal to the “hearts and minds” of the local population in order to gain their backing, which is normally paramount in an asymmetric conflict. IS, however, places limited importance on this strategy and, thanks to the caliphate, it only has to engage marginally in such efforts. Instead, it can rule with a “carrot and stick” approach to secure the low level of support necessary for the functioning of the state, without significant consideration of the sensitivities of the local population. As the “stick”, IS uses terror to bring the population into line. As the “carrot”, the terror group provides public services and sees to the economic well-being of the locals. By rising up against IS rule, the population under its control would risk having neither. The terror group also takes steps to make the “carrot” more appealing for a larger fraction of its subjects in order to secure longer-term support. Nowadays, for example, the IS bureaucracy keeps detailed daily records of its affairs to give the impression of adhering to the principle of the rule of law, rather than appearing arbitrary in its law enforcement. (Mohammed A. Salih and Akhten Assad, “New evidence reveals how ISIL controls its territories“, Aljazeera, 05.08.2015).
Thirdly, the caliphate significantly increases IS’ ability to generate funds by taxing, confiscating, looting, leasing, and smuggling, making it not only the richest terror group in the world, but also independent from outside funding. In contrast, al-Qa’ida has always depended on foreign sources such as private donors for its financing, which left long money trails. After 11 September 2001, these trails were aggressively targeted by law enforcement authorities around the world, impeding al-Qa’ida’s ability to adequately fund its activities. (Prem Mahadevan, “Resurgent Radicalism“). Thanks to its control of territory, IS on the other hand can rely on a multitude of sources to finance its activities, with many of them laying well outside of reach of Western law enforcement agencies. Like many states in the region, the caliphate is based on a rentier economy, which generates most of its income from exporting commodities. In such an economy, the state covers its expenses with the proceeds from selling commodities and thus does not have to tax the population too heavily. However, under this arrangement, the ruling elite also does not have to be very responsive to the people, as long as the revenues keep on coming. (Robert Beckhusen, “Oil prices are dropping like a rock — and hitting Islamic State“, War Is Boring, 14.01.2015).
IS generates around half of its income by selling various commodities, of which the two largest ones are peculiar to the Middle East: oil and antiquities. Oil is one of the biggest sources of income for the terror group (“Analysis: ISIS earns $80 mln a month but starting to struggle“, Al-Arabiya News, 07.12.2015). However, since the beginning of the aerial bombardment by the US-led coalition in autumn 2014, IS-controlled oil infrastructure and personnel have suffered considerably. By moving the refining business to so-called micro-refineries inside homes or moving trucks, the terror group is attempting to counter this threat to its income. This, however, is no remedy against the massive drop in the global oil price in 2015/16, which has hurt IS finances significantly. (Beckhusen, “Oil prices are dropping like a rock — and hitting Islamic State“).
The illegal trading of looted antiquities is another major source of income for IS. Iraq and Syria are historically significant areas, literally littered with rich archaeological sites. Already prior to IS’ rise to power there were many illegal excavations in the region run by locals and professional smuggling networks. The terror group has expanded the scale of these digging operations and started to tax the profits. The other 50 per cent of IS’ revenues, not generated by selling commodities, come from levies, confiscations, and rents. The terror group levies local income and property taxes and skims off a surcharge on all services. The movement of goods within the caliphate is equally taxed by charging tolls. (Audrey Cronin, Kurth, “ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group — Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat“, Foreign Affairs, Volume 94, Issue 2, March/April 2015, p. 87-98). IS also confiscates property of the state, as well as of people who have fled or have fallen from grace, including cars, machinery, and livestock. In addition, it leases out former Iraqi and Syrian state offices to private businesses and others. Due to the efforts of the US-led coalition and Russia, IS has recently come under mounting financial pressure. The terror group has reportedly slashed the salary of its fighters significantly, increased the price of basic services, and introduced new taxes. Hiking taxes indefinitely to compensate for dwindling oil revenues, however, is not an option for IS, as Sharia law dictates certain fixed tax rates. Thus, to do so would be “un-Islamic”. (Beckhusen, “Oil prices are dropping like a rock — and hitting Islamic State“). Despite these problems, thanks to the caliphate, IS was able to build a durable and resilient financial portfolio to finance its activities, compared to other terror groups.
Fourthly, by founding its own state, IS can present itself as the only true representative of Sunni Arab Muslims and the only Sunni force standing against the growing Shiite influence in the region — a claim that resonates among disenfranchised Sunni Arabs far and wide. Many Sunnis in the region believe that, while the Shiites have Iran as an Islamic protecting power, they have no one. In their eyes, the rulers in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are either apostate oligarchs or absolute rulers, who abuse their power to enrich their close kin and act in collusion with the “crusader” West instead of responding to the demands of the people. Their reaction to the popular challenges during the so-called “Arab Spring” is a case in point. Either they bloodily suppressed the uprisings or, as in the case of the military coup in Egypt in 2013, even actively supported the counter-revolution. Iran on the other hand lent its full support to Shia protests across the Arab world, albeit primarily for geopolitical reasons, and continues to counter US influence in the region. (David Hearst, “Iran and the Sunni Dictators Are the Best Recruiters for Daesh“, The Huffington Post, 02.08.2015).
From a religious Sunni point of view, there is little difference between one ruler and the next, as long as they continue to follow the same secular, and thus “un-Islamic”, laws, while catering to US interests. The Sunni forces supporting the Iraqi government and the United States through the formation of Awakening Councils in 2007/8 did not achieve any tangible demands made by their communities either, which frustrated their efforts and undermined their social standing. (Hassan Hassan, “The ISIS March Continues: From Ramadi on to Baghdad?“, Foreign Policy, 19.05.2015). When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad reacted with overwhelming force to the peaceful demands of the Sunni Arabs in their respective countries in 2011/12, they delivered the ultimate proof that, for Sunnis, the political path is not a viable means of ensuring their demands are heard.
Today, many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria believe IS to be their only capable guarantor for security and order in the midst of the war-torn region, and the caliphate the only way to live under “real” Islamic and Sunni rule. In addition, following the uprising against the central governments in Iraq and Syria, many Sunnis consider IS to be their first and only defence against brutal retribution from the Shia rulers in Baghdad and Damascus. (“The Mystery of ISIS“, The New York Review of Books, 13.08.2015). By presenting itself as the only real state-like option for religious Sunni representation, the terror group takes full advantage of the political crisis Sunni Arabs found themselves in after the abandonment of power sharing in Iraq, the bloody suppression of protests in Syria after 2011, and the counter-revolution in Egypt. (Hearst, “Iran and the Sunni Dictators Are the Best Recruiters for Daesh“). Only when this amalgamation between the Sunni political crisis and the terror group’s goals is severed, can a long-term solution be found for the problem IS poses.
In conclusion, declaring a state has provided IS with more crucial benefits than detriments, making the caliphate one of the decisive factors for the success of IS: Firstly through the immense propaganda value of the caliphate which has attracted thousands of Muslims searching for meaning and salvation, who are ready to run the self-styled state and fight its enemies. Secondly, by enabling the terror group to provide public services to local people through state-building, thereby securing their support. Thirdly, by providing IS with a resilient financial portfolio, allowing the terror group independence from external funding. And fourthly, by allowing IS to claim to be the “Sunni shield” against growing Shia influence and the only true representative of Sunni Arab Muslims in the region.
In the third part of this series of articles, the author argues that the deployment of various forms of terror as strategic tools is the third key factor for the success of IS.