The Islamic State’s hidden side: a detailed network of governance

Although a lot has been said about the Islamic State (IS) since its proclamation in 2014, very little is known about the terrorist group’s internal dynamics. In spite of what is usually acknowledged, IS is much more than violence, and the instauration of a very organized network of governance accompanies its expansion, to the point that IS’ leaders are worried about both expanding and governing [1]. The organization has a utopian project: to become a territorial reality and establish a new “Islamic” society. An idea so important that it has become central to the group’s propaganda: videos, militant’s blog posts, and tweets, for example, are focused on advertising the Caliphate and the “services” it offers to entice potential fighters.

In practical terms, when the organization manages to conquer a territory, it immediately converts into a province of the Caliphate, a wilayat [2]. To achieve this, IS establishes a bureaucratic machinery through new local rulers (as mayors and local ministers), new police forces, laws with new rights and obligations, taxes, and a new judiciary system based on sharia. Furthermore, the group plans the administration of the territory to the smallest detail. It takes over the electricity offices, installs new power lines, maintains the area’s infrastructures and protects its main resources, as it was doing, for example, with the Tishrin dam, on the Euphrates River[3]. Through this, IS manages to maintain the organization economically but also it establishes a control on the lands it conquers.

After this regional domination through the bureaucratic and administrative aspects, the focus shifts on ruling the “conquered” population. Consequently, the following step is the instauration of a system of provision of social and religious “services” for the community of Sunni Muslims (IS brutally eliminates the other ethnic or religious groups under its rule). The militants, for instance, redistribute the zakat, the Islamic alms, to the “poor and needy,” as specified in the Quran. Moreover, the group starts running hospitals, where health assistance is offered[4] and where anti-polio vaccination campaigns are conducted. It also provides religious services and establishes an educational system for its young population[5], being the latter one of the strongest elements the group uses to forge the future subjects of the Caliphate. In this sense, education is central to the community-building process as the survival of the group, or at least of its ideology, depends mainly on younger generations. Therefore, in its schools, the Islamic State is strictly controlling and revising the content of the classes that has been modified, for example, “with new additions including a focus on the emergence of ISIS’s Caliphate, its borders, and on the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”.[6]

Despite how the group advertises them, these “services” are not flawless and issues such as the organization’s inexperience in governing, the economic difficulties IS is experiencing, and the strict interpretation of sharia (which standards, for example, become a problem in hospitals) prevent them from functioning smoothly. Nevertheless, the attempt to recreate a model of “state” as a provider of essential services remains central to the project of the Caliphate as, through it, the group acquires a “human” side, and becomes, for its followers, more an insurgency movement, than a terrorist organization. Furthermore, thanks to this, IS has managed to create something that is even more important: a relation with the lands it conquered and, above all, their people.

Clearly, for the Syrians and Iraqis, the terrorist group is the occupying force that imposes itself through brutal violence, sets up new taxes, implements new obligations and rules the population does not agree with – also ideologically, as it may be the dressing standards for women. Consequently, IS has not managed to win locals’ sympathy. Nevertheless, in spite of its brutality, the Caliphate is providing an essential thing that has not always been present in these areas: a fragile semblance of stability and “order” for the Sunni Muslim population.

As a matter of fact, the provision of social services was difficult in some of these areas, something that reflected the critical and complicated relation of a far-away government with the peripheral parts of its territories. It is within this context that the Islamic State has tried to bring a certain kind of order and stability. This process has been based on the instauration of new obligations for the people that, in exchange, would receive the access to IS’s version of justice and different “services” provided (or better said, imposed). This, in return for exclusive allegiance – or, at least, respect of the (brutally enforced) order – and material support of the Caliphate (through, for example, taxes and military services).[7] In this sense, the group is trying to create a community based on the idea that “when you bring order, food and health”, you have a degree of authority among the population “even if terror is also part of your modus operandi.”[8]

This system of dominance is considered IS’ biggest strength, but it is also its weakness. In spite of the control that can it allows to establish, a durable “government” cannot be based only on an improvised provision of “social services” and strict rules.[9] As a matter of fact, recently, because of its economic problems and the international/local military defeats, IS had to cut on these services, decrease its salaries and increase its taxes, something that has resulted in a further alienation of the population, already hostile to the group’s rule. And this is a problem for the terrorist organization since a failure of the project will reveal the unfeasible nature of the Caliphate, not only as a physical reality but also of as a founding ideology.


Cover picture credit: (C) Alice Martini, 2016.

  1. Caris, Charles and Reynolds Samuel. “ISIS governance in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, July 2014, ↩︎

  2. Rahmani, Bardia and Tanco, Andrea, “ISIS’s Growing Caliphate: Profiles of Affiliates”, Wilson Center, ↩︎

  3. Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office”, The Atlantic, 13.06.2014, ↩︎

  4. Islamic State NHS-style hospital video posted, BBC, ↩︎

  5. Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office”, The Atlantic, 13.06.2014, ↩︎

  6. Alami, Mona, “ISIS’s Governance Crisis (Part II): Social Services”, Atlantic Council, 24.12.2014, ↩︎

  7. Revkin, Mara, “ISIS’ Social Contract”, Foreign Affairs, 10.01.2016, ↩︎

  8. Trofimov, Yaroslav, “Response Against Islamic State Hinges on Whether to Treat It as a State“, WSJ, 19.11.2015, ↩︎

  9. Caris, Charles and Reynolds, Samuel, “ISIS governance in Syria”, ISW, ↩︎