Behind the Islamic State’s barbaric ways, the admirable effectiveness of its management often passes unnoticed. Charles Lister characterizes it as an “impressively managed, almost obsessively bureaucratic organization” with “a practical model for social governance, one which has proven surprisingly effective within unstable environments.” He provides a lot of information about ISIS, but does not put them into context.
ISIS starts its operations before even seizing control of a city. By undermining the previous regime with repeated attacks on fixed targets, intimidation, assassinations of top officials, and other psychological operations, it causes locals to lose faith in their governors’ ability to protect them. It does not just affect the military; it also affects the people.
On a similar note, ISIS tempts its enemies to dessert by offering ‘peaceful surrenders’. This creates even more fear in the enemy’s mind since it (seemingly) alters the game profoundly: death, or peace.
But governance is not judge a top-down approach. Governance is a duty everyone shares, and we can see that in an interview of an ISIS fighter, Abu Usama, who says that one of their duties is to mediate in conflicts between the locals.
Furthermore, ISIS is capable of utilizing its allies for uses nobody would think them capable of. Using former Ba‘athist generals as governors not only solidify alliances and enables ISIS “to influence dynamics far beyond what its size would otherwise allow”, it has one very important underlying effect: legitimization. Appointing a key figure of Saddam’s regime to govern a town, is sure to harness the support of the regime’s traditional supporters, not to mention the whole spectrum of anti-American Iraqis.
Saddam may have been a terrible leader for his people, but he was admired across the Arab world as the one who stood against the US. In a paper by Ella Nalepka, she remembers how she saw a portrait of Saddam in Amman, Jordan, captioned “Saddam Hussein: Heroic Martyr”. When she asked a friend, she told to her that: “Saddam was a great man. He stood up for the Arabs when no one else would.” Ultimately, Saddam was captured and faced trial. During the trial, he achieved his goal to become a martyr (in the eyes of some Iraqis and other Arabs), and he won many sympathizers. He is even regarded, as Nalepka says, “the last great leader of the Arab world”. This one thing is also certain for ISIL, since its members refer to him as ‘Sheikh Osama’.
Is this feeling spread across the Arab World, or is it just ISIS? In general, while 65% of respondents in Doha Institute’s opinion polls agree with sending Arab soldiers to fight ISIS, about 45% oppose that the US and their Western allies should send any. With 11% (on average) of respondents supporting ISIS, the situation is concerning. When asked on who has more to gain, respondents voted for the US (31%), Israel (27%), Iran (14%) and far less the Syrian regime (10%) or the Iraqi government (5%). According to them, Islamist militancy is the fourth greatest threat to security (13%), with Israel being first (28%) followed by the US (21%) and Iran (17%).
Although, as we have seen above, ISIL does not only base its governance on a top-down approach, its ruling body has centralized significant powers. For ISIS, the concentration of power has worked largely in its favor because it can pursue risky policies. The mix of power (decentralization of regional power and centralization of the higher government functions) provides the organization with additional benefits: easy substitution of officers and deputies, less information leaks, and better management and execution of military operations.
ISIS has worked very hard to achieve this level of organization. It follows international practices so well that the key deputies also have a network of people that work below them, such as ‘local governors’.
In particular, ISIS’ governance consists of an advisory council of nine members and about 23 emirs who are structured in three main groups: governors, cabinet and war office. They are in charge of the 19 administrative, territorial and military units called ‘wilayats’ that divide ISIS’ dominion in Iraq and Syria. Another perspective creates the following categories that explain both its strategic leadership and its regional administration: the Sharia, the Shura, the Military and the Security councils. In particular, the military has achieved a good level of information security by delegating power and providing autonomy to mid-level officers.
Let us focus on the driving power of ISIL: Al-Baghdadi. The ‘caliph’ seems to be a scholar of history, since he learned from it. We can see that not just from the use of deception, tactics and strategy, but also from the propaganda messages, and the organizational practices he uses, and from how he learnt from the US raid which seized ISIS’ documents, as well as from other militant groups. Allegedly, ISIS has studied US methods of acquiring information and found ways to counter western surveillance. Last, but not least, we can think of ISIS as being taught on propaganda by Saddam himself. As much as the latter used his defeats and his victories (versus Iran and Kuwait respectively) as propaganda to earn him the fame of champion of the Arabs (unafraid to challenge Israel and the West), so does ISIS today.
A systemic factor that fuels ISIS is its ideology. It is important to understand that the full implementation of Sharia provides positive propaganda as well, since a key part of it is: “free housing, food, and clothing for all”. What better promise for a governor to make?
Combining all of the above, the case of ISIS seems to be one without precedent. It appears to have tackled all the negative aspects of each approach while simultaneously harnessing all of their benefits. How they were so successful is a mystery, but a large part is due to the group’s ideology. It is hard to make accurate judgments since knowledge is lost between ISIS’ propaganda and the lack of information, but one thing is certain: ISIS is ruling efficiently and effectively.
By Konstantinos Mouratidis