Its brutal reputation is notorious throughout the world, but here David Watts examines some emerging research that suggests there are other surprising dimensions to the group widely known as Islamic State.
The symmetry was inescapable: as ISIS supporters were killing innocent civilians on a St Bernardino highway in California, ISIS fighters—as well turned out as any Western military academy graduates—were marking the establishment of their first, full-fledged base in eastern Afghanistan.
For anyone who hadn’t noticed, this must surely be the moment when ISIS confirmed that it had gone global with both worldwide appeal and the potential for global support and empathy. Sister organisations or those claiming kindred aims are appearing all over the world and it is now clear that it requires a global response reaching beyond the US, Britain and France striking out against them from the air in an apparently barely co-ordinated manner.
As a senior American officer put it, ‘a totally incoherent and piecemeal Western military strategy has given time for ISIS to organise itself’.
The Western powers have yet to reach even the most basic agreement on how to tackle this conflict, whether it be a full-blown military conflict with boots on the ground as the only way to comprehensively overcome the militants, or more of the current policy of poking the scorpion in its den. Either way, both sides need to educate themselves about the other so as to make accommodation more likely in the long-term.
Asian Affairs has pointed out in these pages that ISIS is more substantial than the cartoon descriptions attributed to them by Western politicians: François Hollande calls them ‘barbarians’ and David Cameron a ‘death cult’.
Those slogans may well be understandable in the context of mobilising populist opinion but are misleading in terms of the seriousness with which the organisation needs to be taken if the West is ever to get itself in a position where it needs to deal with ISIS leaders over a negotiating table, let alone fully understand its motives. That is something that may seem utterly beyond the pale at present but who would have thought that negotiators would eventually sit down with the Taliban when they were at the height of their power?
The scale and depth of ISIS has become clear through the courageous and tireless research of a 23-year-old academic researcher from Cardiff, Aymenn al-Tamimi, who spent many months trawling the internet and other sources for official ISIS notices, memos and other material and has collated them in 340 documents to produce the most comprehensive outline of the organisation yet. And the picture is a surprising one for a group of people with such a bloodthirsty reputation.
It has to be noted that much of the material dates from the establishment of ISIS when it was laying out its structure, aims and objectives, but the seriousness of intent is clear: to set up a state with all its modern attributes—something that would not look out of place in rural Sussex, were it not for the dress code.
Al-Tamimi’s documents, some of the most important of which came to him from a businessman, show that the organisation has set about building infrastructure from children’s nurseries to markets and hotels. They have also already established 16 centralised departments, along communist lines, including one for public health and another to administer oil and antiquities. Their writ runs from the Tigris to the Euphrates, illustrating the importance that ISIS gives to the unification of the territories it wishes to conquer. To this end, the de facto government has created a new district, Euphrates Province, which issues standard work IDs across both countries, Syria and Iraq, as part of its ‘breaking borders’ policy.
Al-Tamimi told the Guardian: ‘ISIS is a project that strives to govern. It’s not just a case of their sole end being endless battle.’
General Stanley McChrystal, who lead the campaign against ISIS’ predecessor in Iraq, also told the newspaper that the group’s skills were not far removed from those of the Viet Minh in Indochina, or Mao’s cadres, where high profile military actions were underpinned by sturdy organisational ability.
In the early days the emphasis for ISIS was on outward appearance to show compliance with its norms, with bans on clothing that was deemed too tight or too ornamental. By the turn of the year, the organisation was ready for more serious measures and its 24-page plan for statecraft took shape. Gone was the emphasis on things like not keeping pigeons on your roof, now deemed ‘a waste of time’, though no doubt it remains one of its tenets.
According to the documents, ISIS has hit problems with trying to restructure tertiary education in the two countries and has found it impossible to create a unified university admissions system. The caliphate has struck a pragmatic stance on the economic front by enforcing price and rent controls on a wide range of goods and services, but it allows citizens to own property, run businesses and carry out state projects.
But one of the key documents details how one of Syria’s provinces, Deir ez-Zor, makes money and in several areas it shows that some recent estimates have been wildly inaccurate. For the first month of the year, the province showed a monthly revenue of $8.4 million. Taxes generated 23.7 per cent of that income while oil and gas were 27.7 per cent. If that is correct, revenues for the country’s most oil-rich province were only $66,400 a day for oil—far less than the hyped-up figures being quoted across the mainstream press, which have ranged up to $3 million.
Topping off both oil sales and taxes were ‘confiscations’—money yielded by ISIS from fining smugglers for trading in illicit goods such as cigarettes, which made up 45 per cent of the province’s income. On the expenditure side of the balance sheet, 63.5 per cent of the province’s cash was spent on soldiers’ salaries and upkeep of military bases. Only 17.7 per cent was spent on public services.
One of the strongest elements to come through from the documents is the caliphate’s desire to portray itself as a Utopia for true believers. In this area, it seeks to create positives and drive away negatives. Part of that effort is illustrated by a generous side and the authorities regularly award prizes for excellence in religious studies. In May it gave out free passes to an amusement park and its newly-renovated five-star hotel in Mosul to mark the taking of Palmyra from government forces.
The biggest negative element is corruption, against which there is a comprehensive drive and even complaints boxes for those with direct accusations.
The overarching aim of the documents is clearly to set out a theory of government and civil servant’s handbook. The blueprint of statecraft is entitled Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State; it is marked for internal use only and is intended as the foundation text for future generations of caliphate administrative cadres.
Each of the 24 pages is adorned with a sword and its final page is signed ‘Abu Abdullah al-Masri, Father of the Egyptian’. According to the Guardian’s research, he appears to have the same nom de guerre as the chief of the national electricity grid.