Experts weigh in (part 7): Is ISIS good at governing?

ISIS flag hangs overhead.

Will McCants: ISIS-claimed attacks in Paris, Beirut, Egypt, and Brussels 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. And Kamran Bokhari argued that security—namely defending territory—is the foremost governance objective of ISIS in the short term. Quinn Mecham focused on the need to provide alternative, positive models of governance for the populations living under ISIS control, and most recently, Nelson Kasfir and Zachariah Mampilly compared ISIS’ governance choices with how other armed groups have governed civilian populations.

Next up is Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. He assesses ISIS’ model of governance before and after coalition airstrikes against the group began. Before the strikes, he argues, ISIS had a freer hand to implement its policies, and has used savagery and governance to both deter and incentivize communities under its control.

Hassan Hassan: Abu Sameh, a Syrian in his late twenties, joined the Syrian al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front as a fighter in early 2013. He fought for the group in Deir Ezzor and northeastern Syria until the Islamic State (ISIS) began to dominate there in the summer of 2014. That’s when he switched sides.

He was drawn to ISIS through one of his relatives, a commander of a small armed faction operating near the Iraqi border. With ISIS, battle-hardened Abu Sameh landed a job related to his undergraduate major for the first time since graduating college in 2009. He became an accountant working in the group’s oil industry.

As with many like Abu Sameh, ISIS benefited from local expertise to run its state-building enterprise in the areas it conquered in northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria in 2013 and 2014. It also re-opened institutions that ceased to operate after the collapse of provisional governments—former employees, for instance, had continued to receive salaries from Baghdad and Damascus, but they typically sat at home and enjoyed the kickbacks, without being made to work by armed groups in control of the areas. When ISIS took over, many of them were forced back to work.

Enforcement of strict rules helped ISIS establish a semblance of order, which appealed to local communities plagued by kidnapping, highway robbery, theft, and warlordism. After ISIS took control, crime disappeared overnight and people could travel unarmed from Aleppo to Mosul. Through savagery and governance, ISIS both deterred and incentivized communities under its control.

Through savagery and governance, ISIS both deterred and incentivized communities under its control.

Local perception

Assessments of ISIS’ model of governance should distinguish between the periods before and after coalition airstrikes. Priority should be given to the period that preceded the airstrikes—between June and November 2014 in most areas—when the group had a freer hand to implement its policies. Assessments must also consider how ISIS fared in comparison to the armed groups and governments which preceded it. In some cases, ISIS appeared to have gone even further than previous governments in extending its writ to rural areas of Iraq and Syria. 

In this context, local perception is key to the evaluation of ISIS’ performance. According to weekly or sometimes daily conversations I have had with residents in eastern Syria—where I am originally from—people living under ISIS rule equally blame airstrikes or government bombings for the worsening economic situation in their areas, not just ISIS. The desire to link ISIS’ inability to deliver services with the failure of its model is understandable, it allows one to undermine its appeal and wholly blame it for the deteriorating situation in ISIS-held areas. But properly understanding the way ISIS ruled during this specific period with an emphasis on local perceptions is vital not only for academic objectivity but also to fully grasp the unintended consequences of the current coalition campaign against ISIS.

Referring to the destruction of Ramadi after the expulsion of ISIS in December, Col. Steven H. Warren, a Pentagon spokesman in Iraq, told The New York Times: “One hundred percent of this is on ISIL [another acronym for ISIS] because no one would be dropping any bombs if ISIL hadn’t gone in there.” In reality, however, many in those areas see the causes of destruction with a little more nuance than “no ISIS, no bombs.” First, ISIS entered most of those towns with little confrontation with civilians; it was political grievances and the failure of other armed groups that partly enabled ISIS to occupy certain areas to begin with. Moreover, the air campaign targeted bridges and oil facilities, which made life harder for civilians and disrupted a wartime economy that preceded ISIS rule.

Beyond violence 

ISIS is a manager and not a distributor of resources. In the Syrian context, nationalist, Islamist, and jihadist groups have generally sought to win hearts and minds primarily through the free or cheap provision of basic resources. ISIS, however, opts for managing what it has under its control. Even as it charges the population for services, the model remains more effective than the ones in southern and northern Syria for a simple reason. Because ISIS seeks to function as a state, local communities obtain essential benefits in return: safety and security, effective courts, and unified rule. Elsewhere, like in Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus or in Aleppo, provision of services is trumped by chaos, uncertainty, and ineffective courts, because local groups do not have exclusive or unchallenged control over territory.

Because ISIS seeks to function as a state, local communities obtain essential benefits in return: safety and security, effective courts, and unified rule.

Other forces that ruled in Syria prior to ISIS aimed to establish order based on consent. Even the Nusra Front, which was far more powerful and disciplined than other forces up until the rise of ISIS, retracted some of its decisions, seeking to avoid clashes with local families. The Nusra Front (and other Islamist groups as well) typically shied away from enforcing their rules to avoid alienating the population. In most court cases, for instance, whether a ruling would be enforced or not would hinge on whether the criminal or his family had voluntarily accepted the court’s judgment in the first place.

Conversely, under ISIS, courts have a high enforcement mechanism. This was true even when ISIS was a minor player operating from bases in rebel-controlled areas in early 2013. ISIS would encourage people to seek its help when they had a complaint about a person and would forcefully resolve the issue, even if that meant confrontation with powerful groups or individuals. This occurred numerous times ahead of ISIS’ rise to prominence in late 2013. This partly explains why many villagers either travelled outside their towns to fight for ISIS even after it was driven out of their areas in that period or accepted it when it returned later.

ISIS’ model was high-risk. The group was consistent and determined about enforcing its rules, and would not tolerate rivalry in its territory or recognize Sharia commissions other than its own. It demanded uniformity at any cost. One of the most claimed “advantages” of ISIS’ rule in its territories is that it “gets the job done.” Unlike the Free Syrian Army and other Islamist groups, ISIS would send a patrol to fetch someone if another person filed a complaint about him (these complaints typically involved financial fraud or unsettled commercial disputes). According to one resident who was involved in such a case, even if the complaint in question dated back to the years before the uprising, ISIS would settle the situation, provided that the complainant had proof.

ISIS…demanded uniformity at any cost.

“If you’re an FSA commander and you have a civilian relative, [FSA and other rebels] would accept mediation,” Hassan al-Salloum, a former rebel commander from Idlib, told me, referring to the time when ISIS was still a marginal player in 2013. “But with ISIS, if I complain about an FSA member, they go and bring him in for interrogation. They would not accept mediation. People then started to go to complain to ISIS, looking for help and asking them to intervene.”

Regulations and price controls are other areas in which ISIS’ governance proved successful. It banned fishermen from using dynamite and electricity to catch fish. It also prohibited residents from using the chaos of war to stake new land claims. This was especially true in the Syrian desert, where residents had attempted to build new homes or establish new businesses in public lands, much to the chagrin of their neighbors. ISIS also limited the profit margins on oil by-products, ice, flour, and other essential commodities. It also prohibited families from setting up refineries close to private residences, under the threat of confiscation, a policy that led some families to quit the oil business altogether, according to residents I interviewed.

A state—and more

In certain cases, ISIS governed areas more comprehensively than the governments of Baghdad and Damascus. Whether in delivery of services or management of people and resources under its control, ISIS makes it clear it is the only ruler in town, and once residents recognize that, they are often allowed to help govern their areas. There have been instances, according to tribal sources from Iraq and Syria I spoke to, of “deputization” whereby ISIS re-armed specific tribesmen to control their own area, though that process remained extremely limited.

Before, other groups and previous governments would use tribal leaders as intermediaries between them and local communities. ISIS, by contrast, acts as an intermediary between different tribes and even within the same tribe to resolve disputes, some of which date back to the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, it has systematically disarmed local communities that came under its rule in a way that previous governments failed to do over decades. 

The group is the only one in the two countries that employs an extensive network of staff exclusively dedicated to dealing with tribal affairs. The man in charge of tribal affairs is a Saudi national by the name of Daygham Abu Abdullah, locally known to be well-versed in tribal lineage and dynamics. He oversees a bureau that receives tribal delegations from across the self-styled caliphate that desire to resolve conflict or appeal for clemency. After ISIS asserts control over an area, tribal outreach helps it engage with local tribes and act as a social arbiter. Even though the organization carried out mass atrocities against certain tribes, the group often has other members of those same tribes fighting in its ranks, including members of Albu Nimr and Albu Fahad in Iraq, and Al Shaytat in Syria. ISIS employs a seemingly contradictory strategy of divide-and-rule. It first attempts infiltrate an area, and follows up with an outreach policy after consolidating control. The office that handles amending tribal disputes is known as Public Relations Bureau.

Whereas Islamic inheritance laws stipulate that women are to receive half of that received by a male sibling, tribal society often deprives women even of that half share. Unlike governments, which rarely enforce Sharia-based inheritance laws, ISIS sent out instructions to local communities to provide women with their due share and some women who complained to ISIS judges would receive their shares retroactively from their brothers.

These measures suggest that the group, in some instances, is more vigorous and micro-managerial than previous governments that ruled these predominantly rural areas in Iraq and Syria.

These measures suggest that the group, in some instances, is more vigorous and micro-managerial than previous governments that ruled these predominantly rural areas in Iraq and Syria. Lawlessness, kidnappings, arbitrary killings, and highway robbery are greater sources of grievance for people living outside regime areas than poor services, something that ISIS has dealt with by providing security based on brutal justice and policing. The semblance of order established by ISIS remains a strong advantage for the group, despite its diminished ability in other aspects of governance, and forces that will take over from ISIS will be judged accordingly.


There is little doubt that the group has lost the initial appeal it had when it conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014. The U.S.-led air campaign has blunted the group’s ability to generate income from oil and war spoils that usually come from rapid expansion. It has also reduced the group’s capacity to provide sufficient services for communities under its rule. The air campaign has also resulted in an interesting trend: it has strengthened the role of ISIS’ security and intelligence core in the towns, villages and cities the group controls, a development that has led to mounting complaints about their harsh and crude behavior.

ISIS associates, too, complain of the group’s security apparatus to the extent that it has become common to hear of clerics explaining to ISIS members that the state that Prophet Mohammed founded also included munafiqun, or “hypocrites,” and that this should not be a reason to abandon it, according to interviews I conducted, including with members. (Connoting someone who only feigns belief in public, the term munafiqun is a heavy accusation to levy at a fellow Muslims, and such people are condemned in the Quran.)

[T]argeting the economy of ISIS-controlled areas can make matters worse.

But all that will not translate into a rebellion against ISIS. Additionally—and more importantly—targeting the economy of ISIS-controlled areas can make matters worse. In some cases, airstrikes led families to send their children to join ISIS as the only way to generate income. Iraqi officials have warned that choking off ISIS’s economic routes might result in “collateral damage.” While they may see this as necessary evil, it also runs the risk of helping ISIS tighten its grip by driving residents closer to it as the only employer or provider in town.

The unintended consequences of the air campaign are a serious concern, especially if ISIS is to be defeated strategically. This is something I have discussed with everyone involved, from civilians to ISIS members to Western officials involved in the anti-ISIS campaign. Residents often complain that they are suffering collective punishment by inconsiderate foreign forces. ISIS, meanwhile, tells the communities under its rule that it would have brought more prosperity to their towns had it not been for the airstrikes. A high-level American official involved in the campaign acknowledged to me that officials were aware of the possibility of unintended consequences but insisted that airstrikes targeting the economy in eastern Syria and western Iraq will only intensify.