ISIS' System of Governance

Eleni is a Greek One Young World Ambassador who currently lives in France. She is interested in the culture and geopolitics of the MENA region and issues of conflict and peace.

Shootings and decapitations, ISIS spreads fear and death across the world through its own actions and so-called ‘lone wolfs’ who pledge allegiance to its ideology and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But how does ISIS really function, conduct its attacks and attract people from all backgrounds and all countries to its ideology?

The military group, which still controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, has shocked the entire world with its brutality. But is it solely a militant group terrorising and killing? Contrary to popular belief, ISIS has tried to create a functioning form of governance, rather than just to act as a terrorist group.

We tend to neglect that Daesh has been governing the areas it gains under its self-proclaimed caliphate, a term referring to the first political, military and religious form of governance of the entire Islamic community, commonly known as umma. The caliphate’s evolution throughout the centuries has rendered it weaker and the Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate, gave its place to the British and the French mandates and to the creation of modern states.

But on June 29th 2014, Daesh declared it had created a caliphate as the first step to accomplish the mamlaka, the imperial unity of the first Islamic era, breaking all modern state borders and uniting the world’s Muslims. As a means to achieve this goal, ISIS has put governance as a priority to legitimate its authority.

Full-scale governance is implemented only in regions where military campaigns have ended, and it may vary from area to area. A first separation can be between Syria and Iraq. In war-torn Syria, ISIS’s priority is eliminating opposing rebels and government supporters, whereas in Iraq it is eliminating Kurds, Yazidis, Shiites, homosexuals and anyone considered by them a religious enemy.

Differences of governance can also be pointed out between rural and urban areas. In big cities, most notably Raqqa - the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate - Aleppo and Mosul, the governance tends to resemble one of a real state, as it includes replacement service of Iraqi ID cards with ISIS’s identification forms in Tel-Abta, an oil exploitation bureau in Mosul, traffic offices in Aleppo as well as an inter-tribal office. On the other hand, in rural areas considered less strategic, the governance is centered around religion.

ISIS’s governance is mostly conducted by Saddam Hussein’s era fighters in Iraq or foreigners, mainly Europeans, Chechen, Egyptians, Sudanese, Tunisians, Libyans and Jordanians, in Syria who have joined the group’s forces and have religious education or professional experience in relevant fields such as communications or informatics.

It is important to note that the placement of foreigners in top positions has created an even greater clash between the Syrian population and ISIS. Foreigners are viewed as enemies of Syria, and their presence has been condemned not only by locals, but also by most rebel groups. What is alarming is that a large percentage of foreigners who come to join ISIS, bring with them their entire families; Belgians fathers bring their sons, Arabs bring their daughters to marry ISIS fighters and Chechen their entire families reaffirming that ISIS in a long-term political and military form of governance.

The majority of the supreme governors are of Iraqi or Arab descent and have previously staffed military groups, mainly the former al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor of ISIS before ISIS split off from the group.

ISIS’ system of governance consists of Islamic services and administration. Islamic services are responsible for humanitarian aid, water and electricity, areas of possible expansion, traffic, infrastructure projects and anything else that is not directly related to religious or administration aspects.

Humanitarian aid provides local population to some extent with clothing, food, water and medicine. However, the significant loss of territories and the ongoing frightening has shrunk ISIS’s budget, differentiated its priorities and as such decreased the humanitarian aid it is able to provide. This humanitarian aid, however, acts as a dependency means for ISIS since populations depend on basic goods. For instance, ISIS controls bread production factories in urban centers, creating a system of monopoly indirectly forcing locals to conform to their ruling. ISIS has also prioritised and invested in the repair of destroyed water and electricity facilities in Syria, used for private, industrial and military purposes while it controls the ones in Iraq.

Although Islamic services are dealing with the basic needs of local populations, it is administration that makes up the largest part of ISIS’ system of governance. Administration is divided into five main antennas: the Dawa, meaning the call or invitation and signifying religious proselytisation, the al-Hisba religious police, the educational system, courts and the local police.

Dawa, which has been a widely-used political and religious outreach throughout Islamic history, is responsible for the organisation of public events or Islamic study sessions at local mosques with the purpose of pursuing the local population to adopt ISIS’s ideology, recruiting missionaries, suicide bombers and militants as well as implementing the Sharia, signifying the Law of God. Dawa is also responsible for the religious education and proselytisation of children in rural areas, where the educational system is not implemented.

In urban areas, the educational system acts as the Daesh’s propaganda orbit towards children. Applicable only in areas ISIS considers strategic and centered around Islamic studies, ISIS’ educational system only offers elementary school for boys. Instead of mathematics and literature, boys who are obliged to wear the black ISIS headband, learn the radical ideology of ISIS, how and why to follow the group, while activists in Aleppo have reported that boys were undergoing military and training exercises.

ISIS has also prioritised the establishment of courts, mainly religious, as a means to win over the local population – particularly in Syria where war has turned the juridical system into a corrupted business and an unstable governing body changing decisions and personnel every time a new rebel group seizes the area. Courts’ responsibilities and authorities vary greatly and include, but are not limited, to inheritance problems, divorces, complaint issues including those against ISIS fighters and governors, private debts and, most importantly, religious crimes and punishments, known as hudud. Hudud, is the Islamic Law punishment for acts such as adultery, homosexuality, consumption of alcohol or apostasy, and under ISIS it is mostly conducted in the form of stoning, decapitation, public execution or throwing people off tall buildings. Although punishments are extreme, parts of local populations in Syria tend to consider the juridical system effective to some extent.

Apart from the juridical system, ISIS has also established the al-Hisba religious police. Its main role is to promote the correct behavior and way of life in accordance with the group’s ideology and prevent any religious crimes. As a means to impose its authority, its vehicles carry the ISIS flag and broadcast religious messages through loudspeakers, patrol cities’ centers and markets multiple times a day. Al-Hisba personnel is always armed and ready to severely punish anyone who doesn’t conform, such as traders operating during prayer, women who are not dressed appropriately, or restaurants which serve food during Ramadan.

In addition, al-Hisba attends demolitions of various sites and buildings, such as pre-Islamic archeological sites or shops selling inappropriate clothing for women. Last but not least, al-Hisba is responsible for the religious minorities that live within the Daesh control, and are at their complete mercy. Although most of them have already fled, the few that remain have been granted a very brutal and restricted status of dhimmi referring to the non-Muslim populations, mainly Christians, Jews and Sabians, often referred to as the ‘People of the Book’ and who are protected under the Islamic authorities. Al-Hisba not only ensures that non-Muslims do not display any religious aspect of their life such as prayers and symbols, but also punishes anyone who doesn’t conform with the Islamic Law (no commercial activity during prayers, the Ramadan fast among others).

The al-Hisba religious police and its responsivities fall under a very different jurisdiction than the local police. Local police acts as the organ responsible for documenting, arresting and handing over to the courts violators of Islamic law, although that does not limit its authority to punish, torture and commit any violent act against them without any court order. Special detention facilities have been constructed in Raqqa and Aleppo which function as torture centers for men, women and children. International NGOs and mainly Amnesty International have repeatedly reported on the human rights violations in those centers and have shown how ISIS tries to hide the brutal punishment system.