Experts weigh in (part 2): Is ISIS good at governing?

Will McCants: ISIS-claimed attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Egypt indicate the organization wants to take the fight to its enemies abroad. One reason might be that all is not well in ISIS-land. The nascent state in Syria and Iraq has lost around 25 percent of its territory and tens of thousands of fighters in the year since America and its allies began to their campaign to defeat it. While the state still endures for now, it’s under tremendous pressure because of the costs of ceaseless war.

To explain the troubles ISIS faces at home, we have invited a group of scholars to comment on its governance over the past years and speculate on what they might face in the year ahead. First was Mara Revkin, who examined how opinions towards ISIS have changed since it captured Mosul more than a year ago.

Next up is Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Jihad-Intel research fellow at the Middle East Forum, who argues that internal documents show increasing challenges for the Islamic State. 

Aymenn al-Tamimi: There are a variety of ways to assess Islamic State (or ISIS) governance over its territories. One angle involves trying to talk to residents living within ISIS-controlled lands, and indeed this is the primary line of evidence Mara Revkin relies on in her piece assessing ISIS administration.

While oral testimony may produce some interesting observations on ISIS governance, it is also beset with difficulties in reliability and corroboration. The ISIS system of rule is a totalitarian dictatorship, on the lookout for anyone who could be deemed to be collaborating with the outside world. As such, residents may be reluctant to criticize, out of fear that they could be accused of leaking information harmful to ISIS. That can get a person disappeared or publicly executed. 

Last year, when I was speaking with a friend living in the western Anbar town of Rawa, he initially said that most residents preferred life under ISIS: 

“We are not content like before but I and most of the people here prefer living under the shade of the Islamic State, as no soldier comes upon our lands, and now I assure you that all the people of Rawa will fight in one rank against the [Iraqi] army if it tries to advance an inch because the army won’t have mercy on anyone…and this is the truth…and I give you knowledge of the sentiment among most of the people who were persecuted by the army but had committed no crime or fault, but we only lack [national grid] electricity.” 

At first glance, his sentiments seem quite understandable. Harassment, mass arrests, and disappearances in prisons of Iraqi Sunnis by the Baghdad government’s security forces were common grievances—maybe they have more weight than loss of access to public services like the national electricity grid, from which most areas under IS control have now been cut off. 

Yet in a subsequent conversation, in which I inquired about any publications ISIS had distributed in his area, the fear of ISIS became very apparent: 

“Brother, you know why I am cautious in giving you information: because the Internet is being monitored. And I want to know what you will do with it and whether this thing will harm the Dawla [ISIS], because after God Almighty and Exalted is He, we don’t have anything besides the Islamic State, and I fear having a [negative] effect on them.” 

Another resident of Rawa refused to discuss anything about life in the town, with the same concern about Internet communication being monitored by ISIS. 

These examples offer a glimpse into the challenges of understanding ISIS administration through local testimony. How can we be sure the testimony is not compromised on account of fear? It is of course possible to find people critical of ISIS living within its territories: for instance, a relative in Mosul told me a year ago that 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants prefer life before ISIS, but said fear prevents them from expressing their true feelings. But how does one even verify that claim? 

Cracks in the system

With clear shortcomings in oral testimony, I prefer to focus instead on internal ISIS documents to understand the evolution in governance—as well as problems facing ISIS that we don’t see in the endless streams of propaganda. To be sure, this method also has limitations: though I have managed to compile hundreds of documents so far, they likely constitute only a small fraction of the whole cache. Only if the ISIS project collapses with loss of major strongholds like Raqqa and Mosul—and hopefully the capture of tens of thousands of documents—will we get a fuller picture. 

Even so, the documents unearthed so far yield a number of important insights. The ISIS bureaucracy is ostensibly comprehensive and impressive, but it is clear that as time progresses, the state project is facing challenges due to pressure from its enemies. 

Only if the ISIS project collapses with loss of major strongholds like Raqqa and Mosul—and hopefully the capture of tens of thousands of documents—will we get a fuller picture.

For example, in mid-2015, the agricultural department issued a general notification urging people to conserve grain stocks on account of the “economic war” being waged by the coalition against ISIS, indicating that agricultural output in ISIS territories was in trouble. In addition, while ISIS makes no secret of its appeals for medical personnel to come to the caliphate, internal documents show that brain-drain is also a problem: multiple ultimatums have been issued, calling for medical professionals to return to ISIS lands or risk having their property confiscated. 

While ISIS would like to cultivate a new generation of professionals, the only real existing institution is Mosul University, which practically remains open only to Iraqi students. ISIS closed some departments on the grounds of contravening its ideology, and even those that remain open cannot function, likely owing to the wider issue of brain drain.

Documents also show great concern about the anti-ISIS coalition’s ability to launch airstrikes on high-profile targets. Worried about data security, the ISIS leadership increasingly attempts to restrict all broadcasting of information to its own channels. It has warned fighters and commanders not to open social media accounts or use mobiles, and recently banned satellite television.

Cash rules everything

Finally, for all the criticisms of the anti-ISIS coalition’s strategies, it is clear that they have significantly dented the group’s financial revenues. The Iraqi government no longer pays salaries of workers living under ISIS rule, airstrikes have hit ISIS-owned assets in the oil industry, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have taken the key Syria-Turkey border point of Tel Abyad, and Turkey has tightened security on remaining border areas under ISIS control. 

As a result, ISIS has reduced expenditures and increased taxation on its populations. In Mosul, for instance, ISIS imposed all costs for printing textbooks on school students. From Raqqa province, a memo dating to November/December 2015 established a 50 percent pay cut for all fighters, regardless of rank. The latter pointed to “the exceptional circumstances” ISIS is facing (referring, no doubt, to financial troubles). This is particularly significant as a financial budget I obtained from Deir az-Zor province shows that military upkeep—primarily in the form of fighters’ salaries—can be reasonably estimated to account for two-thirds of ISIS expenditures. These pay cuts may exacerbate problems of military cohesion in ISIS’s ranks—evidenced by a month-long general amnesty issued in October 2015 for deserters, and the failures of mobilization efforts to stop the Assad regime and Iran from breaking the ISIS siege of Kweiris airbase in Aleppo province.

Bring the fight home

For all of these insights into internal challenges for the ISIS project, I deem the prospect of collapse from an internal revolt unlikely. It is evident that internal opponents of ISIS face a stifling environment, and no one to date has offered them an alternative model of governance. Any internal uprisings that do occur—such as the Sha’itat revolt in Deir az-Zor province back in 2014—have been put down with ruthless efficiency. From the economic side, the group’s financial difficulties are unlikely to translate into total collapse, as it’s impossible to completely seal off cash flow between ISIS and the outside world. 

All of this shows that it will be up to outside forces to take the fight against ISIS to its heartlands.