In a shocking twist, ISIS is exactly what it says on the tin


Now that ISIS (or ISIL, or Da’ash, take your pick) has dramatically spilled over into Iraq, suddenly there is actual in-depth coverage of the group. As cynical as I may feel about the way attention is apportioned in the world of foreign affairs, finally getting this information is great.

Here we have another article in the proud tradition of Solid Content, Poor Headline: How the Militants Overrunning Iraq Win Hearts and Minds. The headline is silly because the phrase “hearts and minds” is silly and misleading, and should be banned for at least five years to break us all of it.

Moving on to the article, though: surprise, surprise. ISIS engages in social services:

The rules highlight the harsh realities of life in ISIS territory. But what’s often overlooked is that the group also has a soft-power governing strategy that includes social servicesreligious lectures, and da’wa (proselytizing) to local populations, including parts of the northwestern Iraqi province of Anbar, which it seized this past winter. In its charter for Mosul, ISIS notes that Sunnis who worked in the Maliki government’s institutions and security apparatus can atone for their actions and ward off imprisonment or execution. ISIS has already allowed sahwa members (participants in Sunni “Awakening” councils that the U.S. stood up during its troop “surge” against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s forerunner, a decade ago) to repent in Babil and Diyala provinces. […]

The group also has a surprisingly sophisticated bureaucracy, which typically includes an Islamic court system and a rovingpolice force. In the Syrian town of Manbij, for example, ISIS officials cut off the hands of four robbers. In Raqqa, they forced shops to close for selling poor products in the suq (market) as well as regular supermarkets and kebab stands—a move that was likely the work of its Consumer Protection Authority office. ISIS has also whipped individuals forinsulting their neighbors, confiscated and destroyed counterfeit medicine, and on multiple occasions summarily executed and crucified individuals for apostasy. Members have burned cartons of cigarettes and destroyed shrines and graves, including the famous Uways al-Qarani shrine in Raqqa.

Beyond these judicial measures, ISIS also invests in public works. In April, for instance, it completed a new suq in al-Raqqa for locals to exchange goods. Additionally, the group runs an electricity officethat monitors electricity-use levels, installs new power lines, and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones. The militants fix potholesbus people between the territories they control, rehabilitateblighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office and zakat (almsgiving) office (which the group claims has helped farmers with their harvests). Most importantly for Syrians and Iraqis downriver, ISIS has continued operating the Tishrin dam (renaming it al-Faruq) on the Euphrates River. Through all of these offices and departments, ISIS is able to offer a semblance of stability in unstable and marginalized areas, even if many locals do not like its ideological program.

That right there. That’s why “hearts and minds” is useless. If people don’t buy the message, but put up with it for some stability and/or in fear of retribution is that really because their hearts and minds have been won? The hearts and minds they have are largely those, it seems, of Sunni Iraqis (quite reasonably) fed up with Maliki’s conduct:

Some praised ISIS fighters as “revolutionaries.”

“Their goal is to free the country” from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said Youseff Qarduri, 31, a taxi driver. “People say ISIS has foreign fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria, but they are real Iraqis like us.”

He and others, gathered under a U.N. tent, accused Iraqi soldiers of humiliating Sunnis and being corrupt.

“They are only working for the money, not for Iraq,” Qarduri said disdainfully. “We didn’t see anything bad from the revolutionaries — they gave a one-time amnesty for those soldiers” to surrender.

The men in the tent said ISIS fighters reconnected electricity to their homes, and they denied reports of government buildings being looted. They said the fighters removed concrete security barriers that made it difficult to navigate across the city.

“We don’t have anything against the Shia; it is just Maliki,” Qarduri insisted.

Whether that approval will remain with the banning of cigarettes and other measures, assuming ISIS’s policies remain consistent, remains to be seen. But back to the services:

The militants have also developed health and welfare programs. ISIS helps runbread factories and provides fruits and vegetables to many families, passing the goods out personally. In Raqqa, ISIS has established a food kitchen to feed the needy and an Office for Orphans to help pair them with families. The Taliban may be paranoid and skeptical about vaccination campaigns, but ISIS conducts polio-vaccination campaigns to try and arrest the disease’s spread.

While the governance and social services that ISIS provides shouldn’t overshadow the repression and deadly violence it carries out, they do illustrate that the group runs a sophisticated and well-organized operation. The $425 million (almost half a billion!) that ISIS seized from Mosul’s central bank this week won’t only aid the militants on the region’s battlefields. It will also help underwrite the group’s campaign to win hearts and minds. And that will make it even more difficult to dislodge the nascent proto-state from Syria and Iraq.

So this is all very interesting. They remain terrifying (CRUCIFIXIONS IN THE TOWN SQUARE), for the record, but it’s good not only to confirm that they are performing governance functions (I don’t see how they could have not been) but to see where their priorities lie in that sphere.

I detect a faint note of surprise in this article, which wearies me. It’s not uncommon for non-state actors with much impact to engage in this kind of thing, particularly if they have a positive project in mind rather than a negative/reactive one (i.e., build caliphate = positive project, destroy american hegemony = negative project—this isn’t a value judgement, it’s an evaluation of whether the goal is to create or to negate). Moreover, a group that occupies and holds swaths of populated territory for months on end is not simply a bunch of guerrillas. They need to be more organized than that; and organization in the interest of controlling persons and territories with military force is, well, literally government.

The West has a serious problem perceiving terrorists as also ever doing anything else; we make our categories way too mutually exclusive. ISIS has been very clear about what they’re doing; it’s right there in the name. Islamic State.

What’s interesting to me about this aspect, what sets ISIS apart, is that so far as I can tell they are lacking much of an element of nationalism. The Taliban have an element of Pashtun ethnic nationalism. Hizballah and Hamas are in many respects motivated by political nationalism–their projects are so concerned with borders (thanks to Israel) that they could hardly be otherwise. I don’t know enough yet about ISIS to be certain of this, but they seem to be remarkably “pure” in their allegiance solely to their vision of the future, which is built around Sunni Islam but does not, so far as I know, particularly constitute itself around sectarian opposition. All nationalisms are built around opposition: us vs. them. Religious nationalism–that is, sectarianism–not only exalts its own sect but condemns others specifically. ISIS exalts its religious practice, but those whose practice it rejects are not defined solely by identification of sect. There are plenty of Sunnis whose Islam is not good enough for them either.

This is an area to dig into in future, because a “state” (they’re getting there) with a vision of its future but a lack of nationalistic ideology is unusual. Again, this may be a misperception on my part; I have more reading to do. But it’s an interesting case to consider.

4 responses to “In a shocking twist, ISIS is exactly what it says on the tin

    • Kerry is in a tricky position. The administration wants to stick to a very conservative, cautious policy. The general diplomatic/State corps of the US have been in strong disagreement with this when it comes to Syria (inextricably connected to what’s now happening in Iraq, of course), but have to represent and defend the Administration’s position nonetheless. The US is certainly not going to initiate major peacekeeping or counterterrorism operations in Iraq, nor should it–so what, exactly, is the purpose of Kerry’s visit?

      There are two fronts he could theoretically act on. One is to talk to al Maliki about the need for more inclusive governance. This is probably pointless; he’s only ever worked on this front in good faith when under immense constraint by the US et al, and at this point I’d think he’s irrevocably tainted for the Sunni population. (Theoretically, he could also urge him to step down; the stated policy has been that decisions about Iraq’s government should be made by Iraqis, but I have no way of knowing if that’s really true or not. Regardless, I doubt it would help much, though I would find it less distasteful than usual in re: the US removing rulers. They put him there and kept him there against all common sense; if they can get rid of him, I dunno, maybe better late than never.) The other is trying to bring regional actors (particularly Iran) into line to try to deal with the problem more “locally.” This is a better option; the US simply cannot commit to major military operations, and it would be very, very badly received by pretty much everyone else in the world. It makes far more sense for this to be handled, as best it can, locally.

      If the US is going to play any real role in this issue at all, here are the options: Accept an informal partition of Iraq and use drones, with…somebody vaguely official’s cooperation, for heavy antiterrorism operations in the Sunni zone where ISIS is. Fund, train/equip, generally support some Iraqi group to fight ISIS, a la the Anbar Awakening. Massively increase support to moderate opposition in Syria (meaning train and equip, meaning serious weaponry, which the administration has been extremely reluctant to provide), and/or an actual military move into Syria (much more politically palatable), OR give up the ghost and work with al Asad, who has done a canny job positioning himself to make this seem attractive. The Syria options might or might not be in combination with the Iraq ones. But right now Kerry can’t really get to work on any of that because the administration simply hasn’t decided what to do beyond the 300 military advisors. It’s essentially just demonstrating they take this seriously.

      ETA: To clarify, I don’t think I’m in favor of the US doing much of anything here; just answering the question in terms of what the US could do. “Nothing,” as always, remains an option.

    • UPDATE: what did I tell you. From Kerry’s remarks to the press in Baghdad: “Now, President Obama asked me to visit Baghdad today to demonstrate America’s support for Iraq and its people during this time of crisis.”

      He went on to talk about urging leaders to form a new government, etc., but again, I don’t know how high anyone’s expectations really are for that.

  1. Pingback: ISIS Governance in Syria | The Osint Journal Review·

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