Experts weigh in (part 4): 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. Then Aymenn al-Tamimi argued that internal documents show increasing challenges for the Islamic State. Next, Aaron Zelin weighed in with a historical perspective, analyzing the extent to which ISIS has lived up to its own standards of governance.

Now, we have Kamran Bokhari, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, to argue that security—namely defending territory—is the foremost governance objective of ISIS in the short term.

Kamran Bokhari: Ascertaining the extent to which ISIS excels at governing requires, among other things, an understanding of its imperatives and capabilities. The most fundamental act of governance for any state is protecting its territory. With many of the world’s most powerful militaries now dedicating significant resources towards the Islamic State’s destruction, the group has its work cut out for it in this regard. Defending its current territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq (and expanding if and where possible) is the single most critical imperative for ISIS.

This is not to say that other aspects of governance, including those detailed by Mara Revkin, Aymenn al-Tamimi, and Aaron Zelin, are not priorities for ISIS. The polity erected by the transnational jihadist movement cannot hope to survive—much less expand—without the provision of essential services such as sanitation, utilities, healthcare, and education to its citizenry. However, ISIS can only focus so much on these functions when the areas it controls are under attack on multiple fronts. In the last few months, it has lost ground in certain areas—largely in Iraq—but its core turf in Syria remains intact. 

This resilience should sharpen the focus of U.S. and Western military and intelligence institutions. At present, analysts and policymakers focus too much on ISIS’s ideology and too little on its war-making tradecraft. Radicalization is necessary but not sufficient to produce violence—definitely not on the scale that ISIS has demonstrated. The geopolitical real estate directly under ISIS control in Syria and Iraq is about the size of the state of New York; if we include the swathes of land where it enjoys relative freedom of operation, it’s approximately as big as Great Britain. 

Defending such a wide expanse against ground assaults, airstrikes, special operations forces missions, as well as human and signals intelligence probes requires elaborate institutionalization. Aaron Zelin details how ISIS systematized bureaucratic structures between the fall of its first attempt at statehood (2006 to 2009) and its second incarnation (2011 to the present). During these periods, it crucially developed a multi-divisional conventional military and counter-intelligence. In addition to its primary need to defend its nascent state, the jihadist movement has spent most of its existence developing military and intelligence capabilities, which played a key role in its emergence as the most potent rebel force in post-Arab spring Syria. 

Where did ISIS leaders pick up their self-defense strategies? One answer is al-Qaida, though many analysts over-emphasize that linkage. ISIS leadership has also likely studied the rise and fall of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Run by the Afghan Taliban, the Emirate was the first and only contemporary jihadist movement to have established a state of any significance before ISIS. There are differences, of course. The Taliban emirate was based within the confines of the Afghan nation-state, and enjoyed active backing from Pakistan and other Gulf Arab states. Furthermore, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has denounced the movement founded by Mullah Mohammed Omar as a “deviant” entity. However, the experiences of the Afghan Taliban from 1996 to 2001 offer very valuable lessons for ISIS—all the more since the latter’s caliphate rejects national boundaries and lacks state sponsorship. 

Security first

ISIS leaders fear losing their nascent state in the face of growing economic and military pressures. They seek to avoid, in particular, the circumstances that allowed for the collapse of the Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks. Many have asked why ISIS would engage in transcontinental attacks in the West if its primary aim is the preservation of its polity. As Shadi Hamid has discussed, ISIS likely does not view its terrorist attacks like the one in Paris as undermining its state. I would actually argue that ISIS sees a U.S. ground intervention as only helping its cause. What it fears is a more complex approach from the Americans involving Syrian boots on the ground. 

Thus in many ways, ISIS’s caliphate today faces circumstances similar to the ones that the Taliban emirate did in late 2001. The U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban launched airstrikes, while intelligence and special operations forces supported an anti-Taliban militia coalition, the proverbial “boots on the ground.” Fast-forward 15 years, and the battlespace that ISIS finds itself in—though much more complex—has the same basic configuration. The ISIS leadership is now vigorously searching for ways to endure airstrikes, block intelligence efforts, and thwart special operations missions designed to take out critical leadership and infrastructure. 

Perhaps most pressing is the need to prevent the emergence of a critical mass of Kurdish and/or rival jihadist militias to whom ISIS could potentially lose significant tracts of land. In Afghanistan, anti-Taliban militiamen with U.S. support were able to stage a comeback from their bases in northern Afghanistan near the Tajikistan border, sweeping through Kabul and even seizing the Taliban’s home turf of Kandahar. ISIS does not want to experience something similar to that, with Syrian rebel forces turning toward its territory in eastern Syria, especially now that they have run into serious problems in western parts of the county. There, regime forces backed by Russian aircraft are gaining the upper hand in critical places in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. U.S. strategy, for its part, seems to be focused not on the collapse of the Assad regime but rather in equipping rebel forces to take on ISIS. Some rebels may do so in the hope of garnering greater Western support. 

For these reasons, ISIS needs to ensure that both those in its own ranks as well as the people over whom it rules have little incentive to desert or rebel. Coercion helps, but only to a certain extent. The Afghan Taliban learned this lesson the hard way, when the very same population that had initially welcomed it as protectors against anarchy turned against the movement and were instrumental in the implosion of its state. This is why the ISIS regime will try to balance coercion and the provision of quality services (which Mara Revkin highlights). But as Aymenn al-Tamimi notes, financial constraints seriously limit the organization’s ability to sustain public support by providing essential services without having to resort to tax increases. 

Civilian administration is a relatively new activity for ISIS, and it therefore will take time to improve its performance. In the short term, ISIS will focus more heavily on the security aspects of governance. It is better equipped and experienced in this sphere, given its own prior experience as non-state jihadist force. ISIS is likely to continue to focus on what it knows best, as doing so offers it a better chance of holding hard-fought ground against its opponents.