How ISIS Governs Its Caliphate

Militant Islamist fighters waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

This year has seen the map of the Middle East redrawn. The West has acquired a new public enemy number one: remorseless, faceless and vicious. The Islamic State, or ISIS, has expanded from a relatively obscure terrorist group at the start of the year, to one that wields near absolute control over anywhere between 12,000 square miles (according to the Wall Street Journal) and 35,000 square miles (according to The New Yorker) of formerly Syrian and Iraqi territory. Within the region, around 56 million people must navigate between the armies of the rival militias, warlords and national armies that are barely distinguishable from one another.

But while Western forces attempt to counter the ISIS surge with its sustained bombing strategy, little attention is paid to an unpalatable reality within the borders of the so-called new Islamic State, or caliphate. In the midst of the chaos, ISIS is deliberately and methodically establishing clear areas of definable civil governance, breathing new life into the memory of a series of caliphates that united a succession of Muslim empires until 1924.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist and senior research fellow at Oxford University, recently submitted a report to the U.S. Department of Defense and Congress on the difficulty of fighting the ideology of such a state.

"The caliphate as an idea has never gone away," Atran says, "And now that it is here again after a hiatus of nearly 100 years, as a concrete matter of fact, it will focus the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people. The critical question is not, 'How can we thwart or destroy the caliphate?' because attempts to do that will likely backfire. Rather the question is, 'How can we live with and transform the idea and reality of a caliphate – and one that will be nuclear-capable probably sooner rather than later – into something that does not threaten other peoples' ways of life?' That is a question for everyone, but it is not even on our political radar."

In Raqqa – the de facto capital of the Islamic State and Syria's sixth largest city – trading standards officers check shops for out-of-date products. Law (albeit ISIS's own strict interpretation of sharia) is enforced firmly. "They also try to resolve social disputes to establish links and open channels with the local communities to normalise their presence," says Hassan Hassan, columnist and researcher at Abu Dhabi's Delma Institute. "For example, two weeks ago, they successfully mediated a truce between two tribes in eastern Syria that had deep-rooted tensions for three decades. They also micromanage education and mosque preaching, even though educators are not necessarily part of the ranks of the group."

Youths carry banners during a protest against US airstrikes on Isis Nour Forat/Reuters

According to the Independent newspaper of London, ISIS has separated its civil from its military authority, withwalis (ministers) appointed to oversee all major functions. Regionally, captured territory has been divided into provinces, or waliyehs, to ease their administration. A central bank, the Muslim Financial House, has been established, from which the group manages the broader economy of its caliphate. There has even been talk of the group launching its own currency.

Throughout the captured grounds of Syria and Iraq, ISIS is showing every indication of building a functioning state out of the prevailing chaos. For the millions of families and their children lost amidst Iraq and Syria's brutal sectarian conflicts, the importance of the stability that accompanies such a proposition can be hard to understand. Put simply, "If it gets governance right, it wins the ball game," says Atran.

While ISIS's brutality remains undiminished, there is some sense that it is targeted. So, although public crucifixions are unlikely to inspire much love, there may be some value to the stability that accompanies firm and ruthlessly-enforced legal boundaries in cities long used to anarchy. "The Islamic State's strength in matters of governance consists in doing marginally better than others," says Peter Harling, a special advisor to the International Crisis Group.

"They are a decentralised but relatively consistent and intelligible structure that may not be as performant as past state institutions, but leaves people better off than in the hands of criminalised, shifting armed groups, alien militias or a vengeful government determined to punish them."

ISIS's state building has been defined by its pragmatism. Many of the former bureaucrats of Saddam Hussain's regime now swell the group's ranks. A PhD-qualified Tunisian currently oversees Raqqa's telecommunications; a former employee of Assad is responsible for the operation of the mills and the distribution of flour throughout Raqqa.

However, this is not to claim that ISIS enjoys universal popularity. Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, founder of a network of activists called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, has spoken about a haves and have nots culture, whereby members of ISIS enjoy a relatively high standard of living and the rest of the community is left struggling.

''The city is suffering from poverty and disease. A big problem is that all the prices inside the city have become very expensive, especially after the coalition air strikes. There is no electricity, everyone is dependent totally on the generators,'' he told British newspaper The Observer.

In many regions, not least the more Western-looking or liberal pockets of Iraq and Syria, such as Aleppo, the group's ruthless actions have earned it hatred. However, in those areas where it has established some degree of governance, that at least has been welcomed.

Over the last few weeks, however, the hegemony of ISIS has started to show signs of shifting, with some observers pointing to the first indications of a stall in the Jihadist blitzkrieg. In Kobane, the focal point of the present conflict, the ISIS tide has, if not turned, then possibly been stilled, which may prove a critical blow to the group's mythic appeal. Much of ISIS's attraction in terms of recruitment rests upon the group's reputation for indomitability and if, after unleashing its full fury upon the small border town, it remains unsuccessful, the damage could prove lasting.

A sign reads "Islamic state, Al-Raqqa province, Control and Inspection Office", which involves monitoring the quality of goods in markets Nour Forat/Reuters

On Wednesday, a highly-respected strategic security intelligence organisation, the Soufan Group, pointed to ISIS's mired efforts to take Anbar, a key strategic point to the west of Baghdad, commenting that, while the group was unlikely to collapse overnight, "its aura of invincibility has been thoroughly pierced."

While not the beginning of the end, recent setbacks in the ISIS campaign to establish its own caliphate are enough to raise concerns among the beleaguered civilians living within it, who, in the event of an ISIS withdrawal, would find themselves at the mercy of the other actors upon this blood-soaked stage. While ISIS offers some semblance of order, the endlessly metastasising jihadist groups, vengeful state armies and militias offer not much more comfort.

In July, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that forces loyal to the Damascus regime have killed no fewer than 109,347 civilians, of whom 15,149 were children and 13,695 women. A further 4,892 people have been killed under torture. Rule from Baghdad is an equally uncomfortable prospect. In September, Human Rights Watch documented "mass executions of Sunni prisoners, and kidnappings and summary executions" by the Iraqi Security Forces.

Moreover, it would be naive to expect any improvement soon. Firas Abi Ali, a middle east analyst at IHS Country Risk says: "If 10 years of U.S. training and $25bn didn't build an effective army in Iraq, it would be overly optimistic to expect that outcome in a few months." The Shia militias, operating at the tacit behest of the Baghdad government, have cut a swathe of terror through the country that will scar generations. The Peshmerga Kurds, on whose shoulders much of the weight of Western hope lies, have also been accused of human rights abuses.

With the apparent weakening of ISIS's previously impenetrable position, the people of ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq may be wondering what alternatives they can look forward to.

And the more they wonder, the less appealing are those options.