Islamic State’s blueprint for power

Newly obtained documents shed fascinating new light on the Islamic State, showing that as well as being a military machine it is also made up of bureaucrats and civil servants.

Hundreds of cadres are working to create rules and regulations on everything from fishing and dress codes to the sale of counterfeit brands and university admission systems.

About 340 official documents, notices, receipts and internal memos seen by the Guardian show that they have been trying to rebuild everything from roads to nurseries, hotels and marketplaces, from the Euphrates to the Tigris. They have also established 16 centralised departments, including one for public health and one for natural resources, which oversees oil and antiquities.

A 24-page statecraft blueprint written in the months after the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate shows how deliberate the state-building exercise has been, and how central it is to its aims.

Shortly after the caliphate was proclaimed in June last year, the emphasis was on regulating dress and behaviour. These included a prohibition on selling and displaying tight-fitting and “ornamented” garments. Fatwas were issued on billiards and table football; roof-top pigeon keeping was banned as a waste of time.

At the turn of this year, it issued a host of documents directly relating to state building and job creation.

It posted notices advertising job opportunities in the newly established department of zakat or tithes – akin to a social services department. There were announcements about the beginning of the school term, the opening of a kindergarten and recruitment for teachers.

Its civil servants also issued agricultural plans for the summer growing season and a plethora of nonideological civil regulations, such as for drivers, who must carry “a comprehensive repair toolkit” at all times, and shop owners, who cannot block the pavement without a licence.

During the past five months, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of documents relating to security measures and military mobilisation; the Islamic State is becoming increasingly paranoid.

Private wi-fi networks have been banned, notices have been issued to checkpoints to crack down on smuggling of gold, copper and iron, and in October the group issued an amnesty for military deserters, presumably because it needs more soldiers.

At the same time, the public security department has ordered anyone previously associated with “enemies of the state” to register themselves.

In trying to assert its jurisdiction across two separate countries, the Islamic State is engaged in a unification programme, and is issuing standard work IDs and running a campaign to “break the borders”.

It created a new district, Euphrates Province, which straddles the international boundary, and has busily issued regulations like those for the dozen other provinces it controls.

But it struggles with tertiary education – the differences between the Syrian and Iraqi secondary systems have made it hard to create a unified university admissions system – and the currency, where it still deals in Syrian pounds, Iraqi dinars and the ubiquitous United States dollar.

In wider economic matters, the Islamic State appears to have little patience with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and has enforced rent and price controls on a range of goods and services, from caesarean sections ($70) to sugar (70c a kg). But the caliphate allows private citizens to own property, run businesses and carry out state projects such as road building.

Tree cover
In return for tarring the Iraq-Syria highway, which runs along the Euphrates River and planting it with trees, “so as not to expose the forces of the Islamic State” to aerial assault, a certain Abu Dujana al-Libi was paid $100 000.

One striking document reveals how the Islamic State makes its money. A monthly financial statement for the Deir ez-Zor province for January this year shows total monthly revenue was $8.4-million – pitiful for a state.

Taxes generated 23.7% of income and oil and gas sales made up 27.7%, suggesting daily revenues from the Islamic State’s most oil-rich province yielded $66 400 a day – nothing like estimates of $3-million a day that have been bandied around.

Topping oil sales and taxes are “confiscations”. The Islamic State fines smugglers of outlawed goods, such as cigarettes, and auctions property seized from designated enemies of the state, contributing a whopping 45% of income. On the expenditure side, 63.5% of the province’s cash went on soldiers’ salaries and upkeep for military bases; only 17.7% was used for public services.

The strongest theme in the documents is its desire to portray itself as a utopia for true believers. To that end it has initiated an anti-corruption drive, with standard complaint forms that even have suggestion boxes. Last year it opened a complaints office in its self-declared capital of Raqqa. Caliphate-wide rules also forbid its members from being involved in state investments or to “exploit their position … and work in the state for personal interests”.

The Islamic State has also busily promoted the positives of life under the caliphate and buoyed morale. It regularly awards $100 prizes for excellence in religious studies and, in May, it doled out free passes to an amusement park and a newly renovated five-star hotel in Mosul to celebrate its military victory in taking Palmyra from Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s forces.

The zakat department has raised a tithe to distribute to destitute families. Undated statistics from Aleppo province show 2 502 registered families each receive a average of $260 – whether monthly or annually is unclear.

But the Islamic State’s state building has been sorely tested by aerial bombardment from without and disenchantment from within.

Coalition airstrikes are believed to be seriously degrading its economic infrastructure, particularly oil and gas installations. Just as critical, it clearly has a long way to go towards winning over local Sunni populations, despite acting as a bulwark against the spread of Shia people.

A former nurse who fled Raqqa after the Islamic State tried to arrest him said bureaucracy was the group’s priority when it arrived at his hospital. It quickly changed the rubber stamps and the headed notepaper so people knew who was in charge. “They kicked out all the administration team and put [in their own] administrators but they kept the workers at the hospital, [the] doctors, nurses and cleaners,” he said.

Health is clearly a problem area. During 2015, the Islamic State has issued a warning to departed doctors to return to work or have their property confiscated. The nurse from Raqqa, who now lives in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, said: “As soon as someone flees, they take everything from him – home, clinic, everything that person has.”

The overarching document seen by the Guardian, Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State, is the organisation’s blueprint for statecraft, intended as a foundation text for the “cadres of administrators” it wishes to train.

Each of the 24 pages is decorated with a sword and its final page is signed by “Abu Abdullah al-Masri [Father of Abdullah the Egyptian]”. The anti-Islamic State organisation, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, references a man with the same nom de guerre as working as the chief of the electricity grid.

Charlie Winter, a researcher at the Georgia State University, United States, said it “is exacting and comprehensive … at the highest levels, [Islamic State] is focused on entrenching its political longevity, not just military relevance”.

Written in a bureaucratic style, the document stresses that trained administrators are at the heart of the Islamic State’s survival and separate it from all other jihadi groups.

“The state requires an Islamic system of life, a Qur’anic constitution and a system to implement it. There must not be suppression of the role of qualifications, skills or expertise and the training of the current generation on administering the state.”

It appears to have several categories of civil servants, including those for statistics, finance, administration and accounts. It lays out plans for future departments, including military, education, public services and media relations.

There is a long section on the administration of military camps: “first preparation” camps for regular initiates; continuation camps for veterans, who are sent there annually for two weeks; and children’s camps.

It says veterans will be taught the “latest arts of using weapons, military planning and military technologies along with detailed commentary on the technologies of enemy use and how the soldiers of the state can take advantage of them”.

Children should receive training in light arms and religious indoctrination, and “outstanding individuals” will be given security assignments such as manning checkpoints. The document describes education as “the foundational brick on which Islamic society is built”.

It hints at the desire to be self-sufficient in the future by “raising a knowledgeable Islamic generation capable of bearing the ummah [Islamic community] and its future without needing the expertise of the West”. – © Guardian News &Media 2015

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