How to Run a Caliphate

Tom Stevenson reads the Islamic State files

On 29 June 2014, the group that until then had been called Isil or Isis renamed itself Islamic State and declared that it had established a caliphate under its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Using modern tactics and archaic violence it had expanded the territory under its control at spectacular speed, seemingly unstoppably. Its ranks swelled and swelled with new recruits impressed by the scale of its victories. Supporters travelled in large numbers from North Africa and Europe to become part of the society it had pledged to create. Strict justice, revolutionary energy, old prophecies fulfilled: its millenarian ideology included plenty that appealed to young men of a certain type. Sweeping across Upper Mesopotamia, its fighters summoned up memories in the European mind of Timur and the Golden Horde. But these weren’t primitive rebels. They came – echoing American claims in Iraq – as builders of a state.

At its height IS controlled a territory larger than Hungary with a population of eight million. It operated two administrative capital cities: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. It held Fallujah and for a time Ramadi, sixty miles from Baghdad, as well as innumerable small towns and villages, much desert and a good deal of irrigated countryside. The horrors of IS rule are well known: the killings of Shia; the choice offered to the Christians of Mosul (conversion, ruinous taxation or expulsion); the slaughter of polytheists; the revival of slavery; the massacre of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Less well known are the thousands of mundane regulations instituted by the caliphal bureaucracy. The claim to be a state, not just another band of zealous militiamen, was central to what IS stood for. In support of its statehood it operated marriage offices, a telecommunications agency, a department of minerals and a central birth registry. Its motor vehicle authority issued licence plates carrying the IS logo. Its department of alms and social solidarity redistributed wealth to the poor. Its department of health brought in sanitation regulations that stipulated more frequent bin collections than in New York. It wasn’t that everything worked smoothly: the caliphate struggled to provide electricity, particularly in Mosul, which had been cut off from Iraq’s main grid. But that is true of many governments in the Middle East.

Like any state, the caliphate produced mountains of paperwork. Since its collapse under the weight of US military power some of the records of its rule have come to light, thanks in part to Rukmini Callimachi, a journalist at the New York Times, who collected 15,000 pages of IS files while embedded with the Iraqi army. In collaboration with George Washington University, the Times is in the process of archiving, translating and publishing these documents in a publicly accessible digital form. Some have already been released and the rest will be published in batches between February 2020 and March 2021. This has generated some controversy. Part of American academia is perturbed by what it perceives as the unauthorised seizure of Iraqi property: the chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s committee on academic freedom wrote to the Times to ask who had given permission for Callimachi to remove the documents from Iraqi soil. The paper responded that had it not taken them they would surely have been lost or destroyed.Whichever side you are on, the documents that have been released so far certainly make it easier to understand how the caliphate was run. These aren’t the only accessible IS papers: other people have also been collecting them, most notably the British-Iraqi researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who has already published a large number of IS documents on his website; he recently started collaborating with another researcher, Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, with plans to release more.

The IS files show that the caliphate was concerned with more than just scripturally correct governance. Its main temporal concern was orderliness. IS operated a sprawling network of police stations, prisons and courts. More than one might imagine was written on repaving and cleaning streets. There are records of police arrests, treatises on the maintenance of hair, the proper pricing for Caesarean births and pamphlets of sumptuary laws. There are notices limiting the profits of pharmacists and others setting the price of satsumas. A document from Raqqa obtained and translated by Tamimi details driving regulations: ‘It is absolutely forbidden for cars to go about without a comprehensive repair toolkit.’ Another from Deir Ez Zor sets out new fishing regulations in light of ‘the greed and ambition of some of the fishermen’. The files reflect the history of the caliphate’s wars. In October 2014 the central bureaucracy announced the opening of a prosthetics factory in Ninawa. A proclamation bans the use of GPS on phones, along with all Apple products. The central religious authority published an edict banning the sale of knock-off clothing unless the word ‘imitation’ was printed next to the brand name in lettering of the same size. Rooftop pigeon-rearing was prohibited for fear that fanciers might abuse their perches to look at women in their homes. In December 2014 the religious establishment issued a judgment declaring that billiards was permitted but only if there was no blasphemy or cursing during play.

IS drew inspiration from Al Siyasat al-Sharia, a treatise on Islamic governance by the 13th-century jurist Taqī Al Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah. Ibn Taymiyyah, who had lived through the Mongol invasions of Syria, wrote judgments justifying waging war against professing Muslims; he was also a theorist of caliphate politics. His influence is visible throughout the IS files, but nowhere more so than in a paper obtained by Tamimi entitled ‘Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State’. Written in 2013 by an IS member called Abu Abdullah al-Masri, it tells its own story of the creation of Islamic State, from the group’s emergence in Iraq to ‘the blessed uprising of Syria’. The control of the Islamic world by the West using pliant autocrats, al-Masri explains, has led to irreligious behaviour. This must be remedied by erasing modern borders and establishing a state run in accordance with Islamic law. The document lays down guidelines for managing natural resources, establishing a system of provinces, the reception and integration of migrants, and running a central media institution. It also justifies the employment of civil servants who had held office under prior governments. This subject has received some attention in early studies of IS: most books note that in Iraq the old Baath public sector was used as an organisational template, and former Baathist regime figures were co-opted for its military and civilian bureaucracies. But IS did more than maintain the existing bureaucratic structures: by issuing decrees and threatening violence, it made them more efficient. In December 2014 the IS administrators of Anbar province issued a message to civil servants commanding them to work regular hours or suffer the consequences.

After capturing Mosul in June 2014, IS issued a 14-point city charter. Smoking, alcohol and drugs were all banned. Women should stay at home or go veiled. Flags other than the caliphate’s were outlawed. Apostates who refused to repent would be killed. But the charter also codified the state’s duties: armed factions would be disbanded, rotten laws overturned. In October 2014 the authorities closed a number of departments of Mosul University on the grounds that they had been judged illegitimate under Sharia. They included the college of political science, human rights and fine arts, the archaeology department and the school of English translation. The department of hotel management was also shut down – though this was less of a loss given that all the hotels were closed. Elsewhere IS gave a great deal of thought to schools and colleges: in Raqqa it opened a new college of medicine. The subject of education comes up a great deal in the files. Teachers were told not to focus on ‘glorifying and eternalising the leaders’, as the Baathists had done in Iraq, but aim instead to raise a pious generation with the practical skills to run the state ‘without needing the expertise of the West’. The caliphate was designing a society that would be more independent than any other modern Middle Eastern state.

One of the larger tranches of documents obtained by the Times was recovered from a provincial office of the IS department of agriculture. Papers of this kind offer an insight into the way the caliphate ruled in rural areas. In the countryside, IS simplified and speeded up land rental applications. A notice from Deir Ez Zor notes the declining level of the Euphrates and orders that 30 per cent of the land be sowed with summer crops and 70 per cent kept for single irrigation crops such as melon and sesame. There are records of an elaborate tax structure for agricultural products (reaping a barley harvest required one form, selling it another). This was a state of taxmen and rate-paying farmers. Land confiscated from Shia and Christians was let out to Sunnis, ensuring that money kept coming in, and tax revenue may well have exceeded revenue generated from black market oil sales. IS was not weighed down by religious strictures about markets. On the contrary, the ‘Principles in Administration’ declare the need for ‘a comprehensive administration of collective expenses and collective production’. Some of what it offered the population it ruled was based on the benefits of a high taxation economy and central planning.

There was, of course, another way of ensuring orderliness. A document left behind in Aleppo presents a spreadsheet of punishments for various offences. Blasphemy was punishable by a death sentence, as was homosexual sex (both parties). Drinking wine would incur eighty lashes. Engaging in espionage was a capital crime. The penalty for adultery depended on the ‘chasteness’ of the accused. A married adulterer would be stoned to death but the unmarried could escape with one hundred lashes and a year’s banishment. ‘Highway criminality’ was more complex, with punishments ranging from crucifixion (for bandits who have committed murder) to the severing of the right hand and left foot (for highway robbery alone). But violence too required planning and bureaucracy. A religious police force on a similar model to Saudi Arabia’s maintained order across the caliphate. Other Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria were absorbed into the formal security apparatus through loyalty oaths. The files show that soldiers were paid a basic salary of $50 a month, with supplements of another $50 for each wife and $35 for each dependent child. Wages fell when constant warring caused the state’s finances to suffer.

Retributive justice was important, but the caliphate also encouraged loyalty by other means. Tamimi has translated the lyrics of dozens of anasheed – patriotic anthems written and recorded by the state’s Ajnad Foundation for Media Production. They vary in quality. Removing the ‘stain of humiliation’ is a common theme, as are the glories and strengths of the caliphate. Some are battle songs. In ‘Soon, Soon’ the might of the IS armies is driven home with the beat of war drums: ‘We will come to you with slaughter and death, with fright and silence we will tear the bonds.’ In February 2015 the foundation released ‘We Have Come as Soldiers of God’, which describes the caliphate’s growth as apotheosis: ‘We know religion, we live by it; we build an edifice, we ascend it.’ The caliphate (‘earnest in its affairs, strict in its tongue’ in the 2016 anthem ‘The State Has Arisen’) is contrasted with the hypocrisies of Western or Westward-looking nation-states. The anasheed continually assert that IS is a project made to endure. The most famous IS anthem was ‘My Ummah, Dawn Has Appeared’, released at the end of 2013: the ‘blood of the righteous’ has been spilled, but the efforts of the martyrs have now brought a new dawn, ‘eternal glory that will not perish or disappear’.

*

To bring an end to the caliphate the United States fought what it called a ‘war of annihilation’; together with its allies it carried out 34,000 air and artillery strikes. Amnesty International has estimated that more than 1600 civilians were killed in the bombardment of Raqqa alone (the coalition has accepted responsibility for a tenth of these deaths); the figure for the coalition assault on Mosul was more than 5800. Washington declared victory over IS on 22 March this year, but airstrikes continue in both Syria and Iraq. IS has not been obliterated: having been smashed with a hammer, the shards and tektites of its presence remain. In the central Syrian desert and rural areas in northern Iraq, its fighters still engage in car bombings and kidnappings. On 29 April Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had not been heard from for many months, released a video in which he declared that the battle would continue until the day of judgment. IS’s defeat has inevitably led to discussions among its sympathisers and ex-sympathisers over what went wrong. Defectors blame Baghdadi and the leadership either for failing to adhere to the group’s principles or for intransigence in upholding them. Above all else they charge that the caliph failed to defend the IS project in attracting US wrath on such a scale. Its current leaders see the collapse as a temporary setback and think in terms of the caliphate’s return while seeking to redefine it as a global entity, within which Iraq and Syria are merely two provinces – alongside Libya, Yemen, Sinai, Somalia and other countries yet to be absorbed. In this new conception, territorial contiguity and statehood are less important than long-term survival and international appeal. If all else fails, there is always the option of traditional jihadist tactics, as the Sri Lanka Easter bombings demonstrate.

IS’s deep origins were in the transnational jihadist movement that emerged in the 1970s from the confluence of the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Camp David Accords and the 1979 siege of Makkah. Like al-Qaida before it, IS sought the eventual destruction of the Saudi monarchy. But IS and the Sauds have things in common. Both were determined to act against apostasy and heresy; both insisted on the dangers of innovation. Papers written by IS intellectuals praise Wahhabi scholars and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself. But they also deviate from the Wahhabis – most significantly in the declaration of a caliphate, an act that was antithetical to Wahhabism, which arose in opposition to the Ottoman caliphate. In an audio message in November 2014, Baghdadi said that IS was pursuing the reverse of bin Laden’s strategy. Al-Qaida had been determined to combat the ‘far enemy’, the crusader West, as a first step towards securing the fall of corrupt Middle Eastern dictatorships. No, Baghdadi said. Deal with the Shia first, wherever you find them, then the Sauds. IS saw present-day Saudi Arabia as a debauched tyranny that had corrupted Wahhabi ideals. But it also modelled itself on the original Saudi state (1744-1818), a viciously anti-Shia emirate founded by al-Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud. Like IS, that state was destroyed by outside forces when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt crossed the Nile and sacked its capital, Diriyah, on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Six years later it returned in an altered form.

IS was born of the wars in Iraq and Syria, countries which are fundamentally broken. Its message played to a sinned-against and vengeful Iraqi and Syrian peasantry, feeding on and fuelling all the Sunni grievances: the corruption of Middle Eastern leaders, complaints of constant Western incursions. These conditions remain. IS files show that dismissing its adherents as irrational or, worse, nihilist, would be an error. They had a vision. Whether it would have survived its own militarism and aggression is impossible to know. It’s possible that the remains of the caliphate will be reabsorbed by the wider jihadist movement and its grand ambitions put aside as folly. But this is not assured. The immediate predecessor to IS, the Islamic State in Iraq, was crushed and driven underground in 2008. It re-emerged energised and more dangerous.