They’re known for the grisly, videotaped mass beheadings of Christians and other enemies, but the jihadis running the Islamic State are doing far more than that.
They collect millions of dollars a day through oil sales, taxes and extortion.
They pave roads, set up medical clinics, pick up trash, operate power stations and offer social welfare programs.
In their stronghold in Syria and Iraq, they have appointed nearly two dozen governors and ministers, including one for finance and another for social services. They pay their soldiers even more than some nations in the Middle East.
Despite being targeted for nearly a year by a U.S.-led bombing campaign, the Islamic State is on a drive to establish a functioning, legitimate government. Swaths of territory under Islamic State control continues to grow — a reality that challenges the Obama administration’s attempt to characterize the group as mainly a terrorist organization with no long-term legitimacy.
The success of the group’s efforts is hotly debated, but there is little question among analysts that the Islamic State’s leaders are scrambling to erect a bureaucracy that can impose a severe system of Islamic justice while providing for such basic needs as water and food for its “citizens.”
The U.S. intelligence community and the Obama administration’s wider foreign policy team are loath to acknowledge that the organization, also known as ISIS and ISIL, is succeeding in setting up the nuts and bolts of a functioning state. “ISIL’s focus on violence and intimidation on the battlefield and online leaves little room for the organization to focus on providing basic services for populations under its control,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Islamic State is attempting to set up a governmental system but asserted that its “oppression of civilians is the only responsibility it appears to deem worthier of its attention.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby went further this week, asserting that just because the Islamic State promotes itself through digital propaganda as the world’s only true Islamic government does not mean it’s succeeding. “I think they want to function as a state,” Mr. Kirby said. “But just calling yourself a caliphate or a state doesn’t make you one, any more than it makes me an alligator.
“What they’re telling people they’re doing is providing an element of governance,” Mr. Kirby said. “But I think all you have to do is look at the way they’re behaving and seeing how most of the resources they get are from theft and corruption and extortion. That’s not governance. That’s theft. That’s corruption. That’s extortion.”
But the Obama administration’s estimation of the long-term threat posed by the Islamic State may be evolving. FBI Director James Comey said in an interview Wednesday evening that Islamic State has overtaken al Qaeda as the biggest threat to the United States, citing its skill using social media and encryption technology to launch plots against the U.S. homeland.
Challenging Mr. Kirby, some private analysts say Islamic State leaders have taken a page out of the playbook of totalitarian dictatorships to subjugate millions of people to their authoritarian order, this time based on a fundamentalist and unforgiving interpretation of Islam.
“Of course their tactics are brutal and violent; that’s what totalitarian governments always offer,” said Thomas Joscelyn at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “That’s what North Korea offers — are you going to say North Korea is not a government? You want to say the North Korean government hasn’t terrorized its citizens into submission? They rule by intimidation, and this is the same type of thing the Islamic State is doing.
“The fundamental flaw in our policy since 9/11 is that we keep treating these guys like terrorists, when in reality they’re political revolutionaries who use terrorism as a tactic or tool to achieve their goals,” said Mr. Joscelyn, who edits the foundation’s Long War Journal. “And their goal is to conquer territory and implement their radical version of Shariah law.”
To do that, he said, “you have to have a massive government and all sorts of people who monitor behavior — a common thing for totalitarian states.”
Governing in the here and now
The Islamic State’s official online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, regularly attempts to portray the group as being at the center of Islamic prophecies of an apocalypse, but there are indications that its leaders actually want to establish an organized Sunni Muslim theocracy that can stand the test of time.
“Whatever ISIS believes about the apocalypse, it sees itself as creating a distinctive and authentic legal order for the here and now, one that is based not only on a literal (if selective) reading of early Islamic materials but also on a long-standing theory of statecraft and legal authority,” according to an analysis published recently in the journal Foreign Affairs.
“Despite suggestions that ISIS has ‘peaked’ or is already in ‘decline,’ its concern for establishing a law-based political order indicates that the group has aspirations for long-term governance — aspirations that should be taken seriously,” wrote Yale University political science professor Andrew F. March and Mara Revkin, a doctoral candidate at the university’s law school.
One way the ambition has manifested itself is through the appointments of dozens of governors and ministers.
The Islamic State’s bid to set up a working government over a defined piece of territory is in sharp contrast to its jihadi rival al Qaeda, which has operated as a stateless network of terrorist “franchises.”
A “who’s who” of Islamic State leadership posted on the website of the Brookings Institution shows a range of officials operating beneath the group’s founder — the self-proclaimed “Caliph Ibrahim” — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All are paid by the Islamic State’s revenue-generating operations, some of which amount to outright criminal activity and some that require at least a rudimentary bureaucracy to make sure individuals with technical skills and know-how get appointed to the right positions.
“Oil extraction constitutes the Islamic State’s largest source of income,” according to an analysis published in May by the Council on Foreign Relations. “The group is estimated to produce 44,000 barrels a day from Syrian wells and 4,000 barrels a day from Iraqi ones. The group then sells the crude to truckers and middlemen, netting an estimated $1 [million] to $3 million a day.”
The oil-starved Assad regime in Syria, as well as Turks and Iraqi Kurds, are rumored to be among the buyers of Islamic State oil, the analysis said.
It noted that the Islamic State “pays its fighters monthly wages estimated to be upwards of $350, more than rival rebel groups or the Iraqi government offer, and as much as five times what is earned by ordinary Syrians in territory controlled by [the group].”
Council on Foreign Relations writers Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters also noted that the Islamic State is thought to be extorting more than $8 million a month from businesses in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where Christians face “an additional tax levied on religious minorities.”
But can the Islamic State generate enough revenue to finance basic services and legitimize the government in the eyes of those it is being imposed upon?
“Their success or failure depends in part on their ability to govern effectively,” said Seth Jones, who heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp. “They will not succeed in the long run if they cannot govern effectively because they cannot sustain their control of territory through only rote violence and oppression.
“They are controlling ground,” he said. “But are people happy with how they’re doing it? That is a subject right now of intense debate.”
Mr. Joscelyn argued that the Islamic State’s success or failure at governance varies from city to city and region to region. In Iraq’s heavily Sunni Muslim Anbar province, for instance, the group may have success because “the Sunni population in Anbar doesn’t want to be governed by the Shiite government in Baghdad,” he said.
“So at least some portion of the Sunni population there is willing to abide by the Islamic State’s rules,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “But they always run into problems with their governance because there are a lot of people who don’t want to live under their control.
“The problem is that there has so far been no force to tap all those dissenters and get them working toward countering the Islamic State’s government from within,” he added. “The longer it goes without a viable challenger, the more entrenched it will become as the only government option in some areas.”
At the State Department, Mr. Kirby acknowledged that the Islamic State remains agile and well-funded.
“They’re still attractive to a whole population of young, disaffected men for whatever reasons,” he said. “What we’re focused on is taking them off the battlefield, trying to limit their ability to sustain themselves financially or through human resources, and eventually helping defeat their narrative through political gains on the ground in Iraq and eventually, hopefully, in Syria.”