*These are extracts from my MSc Dissertation ‘Rebel Governance amid Civil War: A Black Flag in Raqqa’ writen last summer at SOAS when ISIS invaded Mosul and declared the Caliphate. Today, one year later, it is worth remembering that the beast keeps on eating and slaughtering. Same system of governance, more brutality, less borders. More deads, less hope*
The Nature of the Beast
On April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who became emir of the ISI after the death of Abu Omar in April 2010, declared that the Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) (until then the major jihadi group fighting in Syria) was simply the Syrian offshoot of the ISI. In his statement, al-Baghdadi announced that both groups would merge creating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Nonetheless, JN’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani rejected such proposition and sought to preserve its affiliation with al-Qaeda with a renewal of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri (Caillet 2013). The latter called for the separation between the two groups and their commitment to different ‘spatial states’ (Atassi 2013), but it was followed by an audio message in which Baghdadi strongly rejected Zawahiri’s order. Similarly, ISIS’ spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani accused Jolani of ‘defection’ and affirmed that ISIS would reject any territorial divisions based on ‘Sykes-Picot’ (al-Tamimi 2014b).
By the time Baghdadi announced the formation of an Islamic Caliphate and rebranded ISIS as the Islamic State, his organisation had already developed systems of governance for seven months, broken the border with Iraq, and dominated vast areas of the latter including Mosul, its second largest city. In fact, IS-dominated territory now stretches from western Baghdad until the ruins of Aleppo, erasing the colonial ‘Sykes-Picot’ border and creating a strategically crucial area by fusing eastern Syria (Raqqa and Der-Ezzor) with their strongholds in Iraq (Looney 2013).
The explanations for such success are various. Firslty, it is worth remembering that the presence of mujahideen along the border is by no means novel. During 2006 and 2007, the Syrian authorities permitted the entrance of many jihadists across the country’s borders and even through the Damascus Airport in order to actively support the Iraqi insurgency. It thus seems that Assad was well aware of such reality and ‘allowed jihadists to establish a foothold along the Syrian-Iraqi border’ (Kenner 2013). According to al-Qaeda files found in 2007 in the Iraqi border town of Sinjar, more than 600 foreign fighters had entered Iraq from Syria (Abouzeid 2014).
Secondly, from a pure military angle, al-Dawla has taken advantage of rebel infighting and the uncertainty of their supporters, which has been steady throughout the conflict. Moreover, the disintegration of various rebel groups was precipitated by the fact that many of their members either sympathised with the IS’s ideas or refused to attack any group other than the regime (Hassan 2014).
Thirdly, the IS has become an incredibly well funded organisation. As Davidson (2014) suggests, al-Dawla’s funds come from ‘regionally based, as well as international sympathisers’, but especially from the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. Moreover, the IS has seized the strategic oil and gas fields of Eastern Syria, namely in Raqqa and Der-Ezzor. They normally sell crude to middlemen or distributes it to Iraq through the contiguous province of Ninewa, but there are reports that suggests that they have even resell it to the Syrian government (Hubbard et al 2014). The IS has also profited from smuggling of raw materials, looted priceless antiquities, and seized all kinds of spoils of war (Chulov 2014). Such a considerable economic power has allowed the organisation to increase their military capabilities and remain almost untouched in Raqqa.
Fourthly, as Legrand (2014, p.7) argues, the complex ethnic, tribal, and class divisions of Syria’s northeast allows the IS to ‘build rapid, albeit provisional, alliances by surfing on local tensions’. As the French and the Assad regime did before, al-Dawla is exploiting tribal rivalries over economic resources in the al-Jazira region.
Hence, tribal authorities try to fill the vacuum left by the Syrian regime through pledging allegiance to the IS, sometimes without inquiring into their ideology. The Afadila tribe of Raqqa, formerly affiliated with the Syrian regime, pledged allegiance to the IS (Caillet 2013); Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the Bagara tribe and former politician, has also recently pledged allegiance to al-Dawla, obtaining two oil wells in exchange for their support and safe access on the Raqqa-Der-Ezzor road (Legrand 2014, p.7).
And finally, the emergence of al-Dawla should be seen, as Hassan (2014) highlights, in the context of a ‘Sunni sense of alienation, from Lebanon to Yemen and from Egypt to Iran’. Shi’ites and other minorities, thus, have become more decisive in political and social affairs, shrinking the relevance of traditional Sunni powerhouses. This, combined with the politicisation of traditional Salafism since the onset of the Arab uprisings, has given the IS an incredible appeal.
A Holistic System of Governance
Al-Dawla is thus using the most brutal violence to reconfigure social structures and the conditions ‘within which wartime social interaction occurs’ (Lubkeman 2008, p.14). Through violence, al-Dawla aims to shape the everyday experience of those who live under its control: a pervasive strategy that seeks to foster a new existence and a new social condition.
Although brutal and seemingly irrational, al-Dawla’s targeting logic has been following certain paths. Firstly, it has been killing regime fighters, collaborators and members of other armed groups. Al-Dawla has been crucifying and beheading its enemies on a weekly basis, always in a public space and meticulously reported through social media. Crucifixion and beheading are not only highly spectacular and performative, but also resonate strongly within some elements of the Islamic community as they symbolize the merciless war against unbelief, allegedly al-Dawla’s raison d’être.
And secondly, it has been targeting ‘misbehaving individuals, from petty thieves to those disrespecting its authority’ (Kalyvas 2014). The IS systematically applies hudud punishments for an assortment of crimes such as blasphemy, disobedience, or theft.
Religious socialisation is capital after the IS has secured dominance of a particular territory. The word da’wa is ‘used in Islamic discourse to refer to missionary outreach’ (Al-Tamimi 2014b) and has become a cornerstone in the IS efforts to consolidate its authority. Da’wa events are thus opportunities for al-Dawla to spread its worldview, strengthen its political power, and ‘build-up ties to Muslim locals’ (Ibid). Religious education is also part of the IS broader strategy to consolidate its soft-power a particular religious political culture in Raqqa. For instance, it has organised Qur’anic training sessions for new imams in order to correct people’s understanding of religion and clarify the truth (Islamic State Report nº1 2014, p.1).
A further element of al-Dawla’s strategy to build legitimacy is its religious police, or al-Hisba. This police force has the mandate to promote virtue and prevent vice and, in fact, it resembles al-Mutawa, the Saudi morality police, often criticised for its harsh practices (Rossomando 2014). Thus, the wide presence of al-Hisba patrol vehicles in Raqqa confirms that al-Dawla is deeply concerned about consolidating its religious legitimacy. Instead of creating one police force that would deal with both civil affairs and religious observances, the IS has decided to invest an important amount of resources in developing a specialised police force only to enforce Shari’a.
Nonetheless, al-Dawla is more concerned in fostering a new generation socialised under its ideological worldview.
By sustaining and promoting a particular Islamic ideology that penetrates every single dimension of the political, social and personal realm, al-Dawla is trying to build hegemony and a distinct system of socialisation that is diametrically opposed to Baathist secularism in ideas, but hugely similar in practices and intentions.
The Islamic State is also highly committed in providing services and goods to the population, especially to the poor and the underprivileged in a clear attempt to establish itself as a ‘soft-hearted’ power and ensure support. Clearly, the IS has put a lot of effort in creating a network of services wide enough to meet daily necessities and ensure that the city becomes dependent on it in the long run. Symbolic or not, such efforts demonstrate that al-Dawla acknowledges the importance of generating a feeling of empowerment among Sunnis in Raqqa that would eventually make its rule even sturdier in the long run.
Socialisation under the Islamic State: Is there any way back?
In a brief period of time, it has created a holistic system of governance that has the ability to coerce and socialise, break territorial borders, and obtain local support by drawing on Islamic points of reference antagonistic to the hitherto dominant secularism. A novel socio-political order, thus, that is both a product of contemporary warfare and a manifestation of a distinct social space and its long-lasting alienation.
The Islamic State might be soon eradicated by international powers. Its expansionist logic poses, some might argue, a severe challenge to the existing regional and worldwide order. Nonetheless, its mere existence may not be just worrying, but also illuminating. It is the child of colonisation, of decades of repression and isolation and war. Arisen out of existing sociological and political circumstances, but forging a distinct order with brand new coordinates. To understand why the Islamic State exists and how it performs is the best way to combat it.