Experts weigh in (part 6): 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. Kamran Bokhari argued that security—namely defending territory—is the foremost governance objective of ISIS in the short term, while Quinn Mecham focused on the need to provide alternative, positive models of governance for the populations living under ISIS control.

Next up, Nelson Kasfir, Professor of Government Emeritus at Dartmouth College, and Zachariah Mampilly, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Africana Studies at Vassar College, compare ISIS’s governance choices with how other armed groups have governed civilian populations. 

Nelson Kasfir and Zachariah Mampilly: Now that the Islamic State (ISIS) claims to be a state, any useful analysis of how it rules should rest on a systematic conception of governance by insurgents who hold populated territory, a surprisingly common phenomenon. If we are to understand what ISIS is doing, how long it is likely to stick around and indeed why some civilians in its domain prefer its government to what they had experienced from either Baghdad or Damascus, it would be a good idea to compare its choices of governance with other armed groups that have captured territory and governed civilian populations. All of them must administer territory without the advantages conferred by sovereignty—an important resource available to even the weakest internationally recognized states.

In our new book, Rebel Governance in Civil War, we offer a framework to explain how rebels govern. We bring together leading scholars to explore specific issues and cases from all over the globe. While single-factor hypotheses don’t help much, there are broad patterns describing how and why armed groups govern that fit ISIS.

By rebel governance, we mean decision-making, the provision of services and the regulatory framework that armed groups establish to produce a social order within a specific territory they control. Rebel governance activities can be separated into those that concern how decisions are made, what social services are provided and how the production or taxation of economic rents is organized. Symbolic practices and ideologies, including religious creeds, have significant effects in supporting any system of rebel rule.

Armed groups differ widely in their approach to governance.

Armed groups differ widely in their approach to governance, as the case studies in our book demonstrate. Few armed groups that control territory can ignore civilian governance, short of expelling civilian populations altogether. The vast majority of insurgent organizations range from governing minimally, by assuming few regulatory functions, to maximally by ruling everything, including the provision of public goods.

For example, although the leaders of the National Patriotic Front (NPFL) in Liberia were primarily interested in personal profit, they still created the veneer of government to seek international recognition and to ensure the proceeds of commercial enterprises went into their pockets. Both types of insurgents were active during the Greek civil war, the conservatives limiting their governance activities, while the communists tried to regulate all aspects of social life.

Despite the many Western press accounts that dwell on ISIS’ penchant for flamboyant displays of callous cruelty, it would be a mistake to think that ISIS does not engage in civilian governance. As Charles Lister notes: “By perceiving and presenting itself as a state, IS [ISIS] has sought to control and govern territory and maintain a cabinet of ministers responsible for a broad range of ‘ministries,’ incorporating military, civil, political, and financial duties.” As a caliphate, ISIS has opted primarily for a hierarchical top-down administration. It demands strict obedience, but it is also intent on building infrastructure and running it effectively. By basing governance on its revival of the “Caliphate according to the prophetic method,” that is, re-establishing institutions on the basis of what it understands the Prophet Mohammed to have insisted, ISIS leaders appear to have demanded control over most facets of social and personal life.

As a caliphate, ISIS has opted primarily for a hierarchical top-down administration.

As early as 2007, ISIS published a booklet outlining its plans for governance. In 2013, it issued pamphlets that laid out the exact governance activities the organization would undertake once in control of specific territories. Immediately after capturing various towns in Syria and Iraq, ISIS set about taking control over key industries and services including the distribution of electricity, water, and fuel as well as the production and distribution of food. ISIS monopolized service provision and proved sophisticated in using it to balance its brutality. As a result, “Sunni civilians have been more likely to accept the imposition of harsh norms,” as Lister has written.

Symbolic processes are powerful tools of governance that legitimate rebel groups or signal their coercive capability. These processes are often influenced by specific ideological concerns. Like nation-states, rebels create distinctive symbolic repertoires by producing their own flags, currencies, mausoleums and staging parades and rallies. The leaders of ISIS are well aware of the importance of symbols. “The Islamic State was signaling that its flag was not only the symbol of its government and the herald of a future caliphate; it was the harbinger of the final battle at the End of Days,” writes Will McCants in The ISIS Apocalypse.

The leaders of ISIS are well aware of the importance of symbols.

Explaining varying approaches

What factors shape these different traits of rebel governance? In our book, we identify four clusters: causes arising before the rebellion; causes arising during the rebellion; those emanating from attributes or behavior of the rebels; and finally those developing from responses of civilians.

First, pre-conflict factors involving the relations between state and society shape subsequent patterns of rebel governance. History matters because insurgents mostly acquire their cultural values, education, and ideas about governance, while growing up in the society they later defy. These experiences shape them even as they rebel. How they resolve these contradictions will vary from case to case. Thus, the Forces Nouvelles that occupied northern Côte d’Ivoire after 2002 “adopted—or rather adapted—procedures from the former state administration.” Since they did not hold unchallenged authority, they chose to share the maintenance of security with neo-traditional hunters’ associations who were deeply trusted by local residents. In a different case, General Padiri’s Mai-Mai militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo adopted the administrative pattern of offices of the Congolese government while adding “Bureau Six” to incorporate commonly held autochthonous magico-religious beliefs that greatly deepened the legitimacy of the militia’s leaders.

Because ISIS takes an uncompromisingly radical stance, it is difficult to identify its continuities with prior governance. Still, a closer examination of ISIS’ involvement in food distribution provides an illustrative example of its links with the practices of past regimes. As one recent academic study (by José Ciro Martínez and Brent Eng, in a still-unpublished manuscript) points out, food production has long been understood as a key element of the weak social contract binding pre-conflict regimes in Syria and Iraq to their people. In pre-conflict Syria, the Baath Party had long understood direct control over the bread market as an integral task of the social welfare pact it struck with the population. Recognizing the importance of bread distribution to the Syrian population, ISIS undertook numerous efforts to control and ensure the production of bread within its territories. In a 2013 pamphlet published in Aleppo that outlines ISIS’ governance strategy, a promise to ensure bread distribution stands out alongside more conventional governance activities. Importantly, considering the propagandistic nature of many ISIS communications, the group went far beyond rhetorical positions in their commitment to policies concerning bread. Instead of merely mandating the manner in which bread would be produced and distributed in ISIS-controlled areas of Aleppo and Raqqa, the group also “subsidized the cost of flour, accelerated the opening of bakeries and distributed bread itself when necessary,” as Martínez and Eng write.

[W]artime contextual factors…affect rebel governance.

Second, wartime contextual factors—those circumstances that emerge during rebellion— also affect rebel governance. As rebels fight and as they engage with civilians, they often change their practices of governance. The military threat of the incumbent and other military rivals as well as the broader wartime political economy often significantly impact insurgents’ approaches toward civilians. With regard to military capacity, Stathis Kalyvas shows that as the communist insurgents lost territory towards the end of the Greek civil war, they became more coercive. In Latin America as well, there have been many cases in which rebel governance decayed when insurgent groups failed to protect their civilian populations from either internal or external violence, or in response to expansion of electoral opportunities by the incumbent state.

Similarly, a comparison of ISIS’ governance in Raqqa and Mosul, the two largest cities under its control, suggests that external military pressure has made the government more intimidating and sometimes less willing to abide by its own rules. After ISIS took control of each city, it quickly imposed its authority and provided more efficient administration than its predecessors had. In Raqqa the regime acted on the basis of its posted rules until American-led air strikes caused its leaders to become somewhat “more paranoid and prone to kidnapping people randomly.” In Mosul, residents, who originally regarded ISIS as “liberators,” became more dissatisfied as their taxes greatly increased and their nonpayment was met with physical punishments and fines. The failure of ISIS to protect its citizens from collateral damage from air strikes is certain to have increased their discontent.

After ISIS took control of each city, it quickly imposed its authority and provided more efficient administration than its predecessors had.

Material rewards also affect rebel governance. Rebels often change their pattern of governance when they begin to accumulate significant rents through the exploitation of natural resources. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) changed after it began to export diamonds and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) stopped following some of its Marxist principles after it began to export cocaine.

Usually, rebels cannot defend oil wells from attacks by incumbent states. ISIS has been an exception, making a daily income of $3 million in September 2014. After the recent steep fall in crude oil prices and air strikes, internal taxation (or extortion) may have become a more significant source of revenue. ISIS has also profited from kidnapping and bank robberies. Its reliance on oil production has proven both a boon and curse as the value of ISIS-produced oil shifts dramatically due to both the challenge of ensuring production and fluctuations in oil prices globally. The income permitted ISIS to pay generous salaries to civilians to keep sanitation and utility services functioning.

Third, rebel attributes and behavior—organizational structure and ideological orientation—affect rebel governance. Ideologies often provide rebels with political identities, coherent frameworks for political and social action and a sense of disciplined commitment to an overriding purpose. The Greek communists learned their Marxism before they rebelled. Ethnic secessionists, such as the Naga in India, knew whom they were going to exclude from their imagined polity in advance of taking up arms.

Establishing a legal code is a social service that often demonstrates the influence of ideology on rebel governance.

Establishing a legal code is a social service that often demonstrates the influence of ideology on rebel governance. Rules that rebels create and civilians obey can help provide legitimate authority, whether out of trust (as in the case of the Shining Path in Peru) or out of fear (as inspired by the Taliban in Afghanistan).

ISIS bases not only its fundamental character, but also its plan of governance, almost entirely on its peculiar interpretation of Islamic doctrine. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, received both a masters and a doctorate in Islamic rhetoric from the University of Islamic Sciences in Baghdad. As the caliph, some of the Islamic rationales that have been supplied to justify specific ISIS regulations can be traced to his earlier education.

The influence of Islam on ISIS’ ideology is most evident in its attempts to establish a legal system. The rebellion “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 [Islamic] theory of statecraft and legal authority.” Andrew March and Mara Revkin identify laws governing land, trade, taxation and treatment of prisoners and slaves, all derived from ISIS’ interpretation of scripture. In addition, they assert “the theory of the caliphate implies a law-based social contract with reciprocal obligations and rights between the caliph and the people.” The extent to which this legal order actually results in enforceable rights that protect civilians is unclear. However, there is evidence that ISIS officials engaged in dispute resolution among civilians, even punishing its fighters when they took bribes or harmed civilians.

[C]ivilian responses to the insurgent group affect rebel governance.

Finally, civilian responses to the insurgent group affect rebel governance. We examine both individual reactions to armed groups as well as how varying social groups—such as traders, religious orders, ethnic groups, and civil society organizations—engage with or challenge an armed group’s governance efforts. ISIS is challenging to study since it is perceived as denying civilians’ agency completely. But even under the most autocratic governance arrangements, civilians have found ways to influence and even challenge armed groups. For example, during the war in Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had numerous methods for incorporating civilian feedback despite its deserved reputation as an autocratic and brutal organization. The education system in Tiger-ruled areas emerged as a result of civilian pressure and meaningfully incorporated civilians into its daily operations.

Indeed, a surprising number of rebel groups have shared decision-making with civilians. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) created democratic village councils, as did the National Resistance Army during its war in Uganda. On the other hand, summary justice and brutal punishments can increase legitimacy among civilians when meted out to thieves and rapists. Residents gave strong support to rebels who took over neighborhoods in Medellín, Colombia and provided instant justice to those the community regarded as criminals.

It appears that ISIS does not share decision-making with civilians, similar to other rebels that take Islam as the doctrinal basis for their revolt such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or Boko Haram in Nigeria. But discerning whether civilian responses affect ISIS governance would require difficult (though not impossible) field visits to ISIS-controlled territory. The fact that the group frequently needs to rely on civilians in order to provide services suggests that there may be greater scope for civilian involvement than is commonly recognized.

[W]hile ISIS may appear unique, it is not an exception from the pressures that shape rebel governance patterns generally.

Taken together, the above discussion shows that while ISIS may appear unique, it is not an exception from the pressures that shape rebel governance patterns generally. Armed groups do not determine the outcome of their governance efforts in a vacuum. Rather, civilian governance outcomes are established by the behavior of a variety of actors each interacting in a shifting and complex environment. While ISIS may be distinctive in its commitment to implementing a form of civilian governance based on its understanding of Islamic modes of governance, it is still subject to these dynamics. Analyzing it through the four clusters of factors discussed above show how its governance of civilians compares with other rebel groups.

The sustainability question

What does this tell us about the future of civilian governance under ISIS? Because ISIS has established a caliphate, it is committed to governing the people in the territories it conquers. As discussed above, ISIS leaders have adopted an approach to law that creates room for some protections for civilians and an approach to social welfare that provides space for a limited social pact. Yet, these rulers have fashioned an uncompromising notion that civilians must be governed within their strict interpretation of Islamic doctrine. In addition, they depend on foreign military recruits to buttress their rule.

These factors create contradictions that may cause regime instability that might either increase regime brutality, if leaders remain constant to their principles, or result in regime decay, if they lose their sense of purpose. ISIS may eventually be “hamstrung by its radicalism.” During the short time that ISIS has ruled civilians, it has insisted that its decisions cannot be questioned. The relevant lesson from studying other rebellions is that groups better able to accommodate different political actors through a process of political negotiation are more likely to endure. If ISIS leaders remain obstinate, refusing to compromise in favor of a principled ideological stand, civilians will continue to suffer and either fight or flee if they can. Alternately, if the group’s leaders are tempted by the wealth the regime has accumulated, they may give in to corruption and fashion a more predatory regime.

ISIS has also become a magnet for foreign fighters. No one really knows how many there are, but an early (2014) estimate is 15,000 from 90 countries. Although the flow has decreased recently, cultural interactions and political disputes among these foreigners and civilians are certain to remain problematic. As the external military threats faced by ISIS grow, its leaders are likely to rely on the loyalty and morale of their foreign fighters at the expense of the civilian population. Civilian governance will probably decay, resulting in greater instability and perhaps sowing the seeds of ISIS’ own demise.