Running the Islamic State Part 3: Limits of Governance

Self-styled Islamic State (IS) is a militant group controlling vast areas of Iraq and Syria with population up to 8 million. There is a wide-spread perception that IS is actually able to fulfill a state-like role. While it may have been partially true in the first months when IS assumed control over major cities such as Dairaz-Zawr or Mosul, there are considerable shortcomings of IS’s governance in controlled territories. Part of this distorted image of IS as a successful quasi-state was maintained by its own propaganda outlets. IS’s governance is according to increasing number of reports experiencing serious shortcomings. We bring you an insight into governance system of the so-called Islamic State and its failures. We also explore possible campaign of targeting IS governance capabilities as a viable anti-IS strategy. This article is the third part of the series „Running the Islamic State“ which aims to offer an in-depth analysis into IS’s financing, leadership, and governance.

A. Introduction

IS is often presented as an organization which is able to fulfill the role of a state – providing a stable economic environment, internal security, or rule of law. IS’s propaganda outlets conducting their media efforts through professional media centers such as al-Hayat (in English) or al-Furqan (in Arabic) strive to create an impressionthat IS is successful in governing the war-torn territories. Besides tough enforcement of imposed laws embedded in their radical Salafist ideology, the population enjoys social and economic stability, education, personal security and justice. According to this distorted propaganda message, local governance structures of self-styled Caliphate skillfully take over states function.

The initial success of the IS (accompanied by well-though media strategy presenting their governance) in fulfilling quasi-state role was undisputable. This perception upheld especially in the first months after the taking over Syrian provinces ar-Raqqah and Dairaz-Zawr in early 2014 and later on with gaining control over Sunni areas of Iraq in July. However, in the last six months, there is an increasing number of reports that IS’s governance is considerably failing,reaching its limits, and confronting obvious unsustainability. IS fails in providing administrative services, drinkable or running water is scarce, power outages became permanent, there are not enough professionals such as doctors, engineers, farmers etc. In the key cities under IS’s grip such as Mosul, ar-Raqqa, Dairaz-Zawr, food becomes scarce, as well as fueled and cooking gas and the prices of basic supplies rose astronomically.

B. Deficits of the Islamic State‘s Governance

Compliance of the local population and their tolerance of the harshly imposed norms of the IS’s radical Salafist vision was not only ensured by the intimidation and liquidation of opponents but also with a combination of the „carrot and stick“ strategy. Skillful IS’s propaganda and the initial success of IS’s governance, compared to their adversaries in Syria (Assad’s regime and other rebel groups), and in Iraq (pro-Shi’ite al-Maliki’s administration), crafted an image that it can sustain governance. IS invested considerable energy into sustaining and developing services to the population and into the subsequent propaganda of results of its efforts. In August, the IS governance was described by locals in Syrian Manbijas„fast and efficient“. Furthermore, it was added that: „The administration can move quickly to repair water lines or fix electricity towers, all in full coordination with the Islamic Police and IS fighters. Everything is coordinated and the different parts of the administration are linked, share information, and generally seem good at working together.“

Right after assuming control over cities like ar-Raqqah, Dairaz-Zawr, or Mosul, IS strived to fill in administrative vacuum by overtaking existing governance structures of Iraqi Shiite (or Syrian) government. IS started to thoroughly tighten its grip over food supplies, electricity, water, factories, and bakeries and even took care of garbage disposal, made sure that bureaucratic offices, hospitals, and schools continue to operate.

Within the IS ranks, there are indeed not only fighters but also civilian or quasi-civilian technocrats. However, their number is not sufficient to cover all the needs. In order to counter this deficit, IS opted for forcing and overpaying existing bureaucrats, engineers or doctors to stay in their positions. Many of them still chose to escape and IS has an urgent lack of qualified personnel. Islamists also systematically recruit young university graduates and other experts within unemployed Sunnis, which were marginalized by Baghdad administration dominated by Shiites. Self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also openly called for Muslim experts from abroad to come and help with „state-building“ in the text named „A Call to all Muslims, scholars, doctors, engineers, and specialists“ which was published in English-written magazine Dabiq.

IS even opened institutions such as the „Consumer Protection Office“ inar-Raqqah which is responsible for overseeing the quality of food sold by the shop owners, or it provides parking tickets. Functioning of such an ambitious system is according to report covering last six months considerably failing. Activists from controlled territories or refugees increasingly speak of inability of IS to provide basic services, spread of diseases, corruption, lack of qualified personnel and abusive behaviors of IS appointed „administrators“ and quasi-police (al-Hisbah) in the cities. One of the activists based in Syrian Dairaz-Zawr pointedly summed up the situation: “The whole idea that it is well organized and an administrative entity is wrong. It is just an image.”

C. Administrative Branch

The local governance system of the IS is divided into two streams or branches. The first one is administrative which contains security, rule of law, education and tribal affairs. Internal security in the controlled cities is responsibility of the quasi-police force al-Hisbah, which is also supposed to enforce harsh laws such as prohibition of smoking, consuming alcohol, covering of women, closing the stores during time of the prayers etc.

Al-Hisbah is according to recent reports gradually getting much more focused on its own enrichment and levying resource for IS – it collects more and more „taxes“ and increasingly preys on the population. According to activists from „Raqqah is being slaughtered quietly“, al-Hisbah is now focused on robbing and taxation of people. Also in Mosul, there is for examplea new „tax“ 10-35 % on all supplies sold by pharmacies, militants deliberately even overtook parking lots and collect parking fees. Checkpoint controls are used as a pretext to collect religious tax „zakat“ from passing vehicles. Corruption has become a vast problem among appointed IS’s administrative cadres, and there are more and more reports that for money one can „buy freedom“ from harsh Islamic laws. A new duty of al-Hisbah is to collect „zakat“ from the population. As a rewult, the norms are not imposed so systematically and harshly because al-Hisbah is simply focused on their predatory activities. While some months ago, shop owners had to close the shops during prayer time, now they can leave them open for some 5 dollar fee.

IS operatives monopolize the black market and sell goods “forbidden” according to their laws, such as cigarettes in Mosul, only now for some 26 dollars a pack. There were also several „leaked“ cases when IS officials appointed to govern the cities simply steal levied money and fled the country. For example, a prominent chief of al-Hisbah in Mosul Abu Talha al-Kuwaiti reportedly took one million dollars in cash and fled through Turkey to an unknown location.

D. Islamic Administration of Public Services

The second branch of IS local governance is called the „Islamic Administration of Public Services“ and is responsible for water and electricity supplies, food prices regulation, agricultural management, or functioning of bakeries and other key businesses.

Current personnel which opted for or was forced to work for IS is demotivated by frequent bullying and harsh (and often irrational) norms imposed by IS. There is also clearly not enough funds to pay them accordingly. A doctor from Mosul admitted that IS actually still allows him and his colleagues to collect their salary from Baghdad government (some 1000 dollars) and IS is only paying some 200 dollars. Female hospital personnel cannot work during the night and must be covered. Medical supplies and hospital equipment are scarce and are being usurped by IS which uses the best hospital with best doctors and equipment solely to treat their own personnel. IS even simply overtook the whole Mosul’s blood bank only to cover its own needs. IS runs a network of public clinics but reportedly only the poorest people with no other option go there since the quality of care is worse than horrible.

Trade with neighboring territories continues but is severely constrained, ineffective and risky. For example, trucks with basic goods from Turkey continue to flood to Syria, but the trip that originally took a few hours is now often a voyage for a week. Additionally, IS collects „tariffs“ up to 300 dollars per vehicle. Trade is, therefore, not so profitable and every travel is incredibly risky.

Granaries are being emptied and flour prices multiplied (bread costs 150 % more than in September), 50 kg of rice cost in December 2014 in Mosul some 65 dollars, while three months earlier only 9 dollars. Food supplies in cities are simply lowering which leads to increasing prices. IS engaged systematically in overtaking government-controlled granaries, or stealing herds of cattle. But the stocks are running low (also a large portion of stolen grain was sold to Baghdad or Damascus on the black market for higher prices). This year, the situation will be most probably much worse considering the fact that many farmers fled the IS-controlled territories and not enough crops are planted for this year. Electricity and water have been running lately only for a few hours a day (if even) in Mosul or ar-Raqqah. People must mostly use their own electricity generators, but the fuel is also expensive and scarce. In November, the mobile network shut down in Mosul area, which severely complicates business communication (as traders complain).

IS HQ in ar-Raqqah
IS HQ in ar-Raqqah

IS’s governance is not firmly in the saddle and it is clearly not able to sustain the provision of basic services in long-term. In the words of Atlantic Council’s Mona Alami,„Violence alone can keep ISIS running for a while, but its failings will put limitations on how long residents of the caliphate will remain silent.“ IS creates an image that it rules with a firm hand everywhere, but that does not correspond with the reality on the ground. The permanent presence of IS members and their local administrations is limited to few large cities (Mosul, ar-Raqqah, Dairaz-Zawr, al-Bab, or Idlib).

In the rural areas, IS has only a limited and short-term direct presence (for example they come to a village for a few days to lecture locals about ideology and hand out some supplies to gain the „hearts and minds“). In most of rural areas IS is simply using alliances with local tribal militias, which are, however, usually not so brutal and radical (nor necessarily care much for radical ideology) as IS is in the cities. IS actually more or less left control of rural areas to various Sunni tribal militias which pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

E. What Causes the Trouble?

Firstly, IS simply does not have enough qualified personnel at their disposal; there are not enough experts such as engineers, bureaucrats, economists, agricultural engineers, doctors and, in general, capable civilian administrators with sufficient local knowledge. Vast majority of administrative institutions is personally occupied by employees who were working there before IS overtook respective cities (and loyalty is indeed questionable). Many professionals fled and there are not enough newcomers despite IS’s recruitment campaigns. There is simply not enough people with a sufficient know-how, which can ensure that companies, hospitals, refineries, and other public services run smoothly.

Secondly, there are not enough supplies. The economy does not work and it is reflected in the steep increase of prices of basic goods. Population, which is in the vicious circle of being extorted by the IS, cannot afford them. Medical supplies become scarce, as well as fuel, or gas used for cooking and heating. An obsolete infrastructure of water conduits and waste water treatment facilities, electric network, or oil infrastructure need frequent and skilled maintenance and spare parts to keep it running. Moreover, IS needs spare parts to keep its vehicle fleet in order, which can prove problematic in the longer-term.

Thirdly, local administrators of IS are increasingly corrupted and also extort population more in order to sustain its armed campaign. Local administrative branches of IS levy more and more „taxes“ from the population whose resources are limited (and even more pressingly with rising prices of basic goods). It all strengthens grievances of the population and damages any effort to maintain effective administrative and economic system. People can eventually end up with such distaste that they may come to a conclusion that Assad’s or Baghdad’s administration despite their shortcomings were not that bad.

Fourthly, coalition airstrikes also considerably damage IS’s capacities to govern. Civilian infrastructure is not a primary target but depletes IS resources in general and thus it must resort to further exploitation of population and redirect sources that could otherwise be used for administration to sustain the armed struggle. There are not enough medical supplies, IS’s convoys are targeted, there is a lack of fuel.

F. Targeting IS’s Governance Capacities as a Viable Fighting Strategy?

If IS continues to fail to provide basic services and goods, the willingness of the population to tolerate their harsh rule will falter. Lately, activists on social media have been reporting that for example Mosul „is quietly slipping out of IS’s hands“. Not even IS with its brutality has means to sustain control over such vast territory and at the same time wage armed campaign against its opponents. The question is whether we may consider deliberate targeting of IS governance capabilities as a sounding part of the strategy fighting IS. Eventually, it can be even possible to financially and logistically support mushrooming revolts of the disillusioned population.

The answer is a clear „no“.

Such systematic pursue would lead to even bigger humanitarian disaster. If supplies of food and other basic goods (for example those which on daily basis flood to ar-Raqqa from Turkey) or purchase of oil from IS are interrupted it will lead to further suffering of the population. Famine and epidemics would spread, IS would start unprecedented atrocity campaigns to keep the population in line, an exodus of refugees to neighboring countries would increase. Using airstrikes to destroy local infrastructure (electric grid, water system, granaries etc.) or factories would make rapid post-war reconstruction virtually nearly impossible. Although integral part of the aerial campaign is to damage IS’s capacities to produce and refine oil , critical infrastructure is not a primary target of airstrikes. IS would in response extort population even more since keeping up the armed campaign is a priority for them. Thus, subsequent humanitarian disaster would be effectively even bigger problem than the existence of IS itself.

Anti-IS coalition does not opt for such strategy (albeit it might seem effective in short-term) and balances between targeting military and command capacities of IS, or precise strikes on oil infrastructure (after all, oil is still one of the major sources of IS’s income and it needs fuel to keep their highly mobile style of warfare running). An example of such approach is indeed a swift Kurdish operation in February 2015 in Norther Iraq which targeted main supply road between ar-Raqqah and Mosul. It is, however, unlikely that the goal of such operations is to completely cut out all supplies. It rather aims to disrupt IS’s military forces‘ mobility.

In line with a careful strategy of the anti-IS coalition, there is still trade going on with IS-controlled areas, western humanitarian organizations still provide (albeit not so visibly) aid to the civilian population there. Both Damascus and Baghdad reportedly systematically continue to pay their bureaucrats and other state employees such as doctors – they usually travel once a month to the closest government–controlled center to collect their salaries. At first glance, unlikely modus vivendi is more or less accepted by both sides – actors are very well aware that it is not in the IS’s or its opponents‘ interest to create unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.

Author:  Tomáš Kaválek, doctoral candidate, the Department of Politology, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University Brno. He is currently visiting research assistant at the Marmara University Research Center for International Relations (MURCIR) in Istanbul and also intern at the International Crisis Group’s Office in Istanbul. 


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