ISIS Is More Than Just a ‘Terrorist Organization’

The group looks and acts more like a government with a military than a traditional terrorist group.

Shiite fighters in Iraq respond to a cleric's call to defend their country against the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
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Kaveh Waddell
June 17, 2014, 10:25 a.m.

An ex­trem­ist mil­it­ant group has taken over num­ber of ma­jor Ir­aqi cit­ies at break­neck speed, but the threat it poses to Ir­aq and the world are un­like any ter­ror­ist threat we’ve seen be­fore.

The White House refers to the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion. The group’s name, however, re­veals more about the nature of its as­pir­a­tions. To reach its goal of es­tab­lish­ing a ca­liphate in Ir­aq and Syr­ia, IS­IS has built it­self to re­semble a gov­ern­ment, com­plete with a mil­it­ary, a po­lice force, and pub­lic-works pro­jects.

Rather than us­ing tar­geted at­tacks to fur­ther spe­cif­ic goals, IS­IS is wa­ging full-out war on the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment in a cam­paign to cap­ture ter­rit­ory, then gov­ern­ing those ter­rit­or­ies in an or­gan­ized fash­ion.

IS­IS is already lay­ing down new laws in Ir­aq. Last week, the group handed out a “Con­tract of the City” to res­id­ents of the north­ern Niniveh province, where Mo­sul, Ir­aq’s second-largest city, is loc­ated. The Wash­ing­ton Post trans­lated the con­tract’s 16 main points, in which IS­IS threatens to pun­ish thieves by am­pu­ta­tion, prom­ises to sen­tence non­be­liev­ers to death, and urges wo­men to stay in­doors un­less ab­so­lutely ne­ces­sary.

In The At­lantic, Aaron Zelin looks to the al-Raqqa state of Syr­ia for a hint of how IS­IS might gov­ern in Ir­aq. In al-Raqqa, where IS­IS has been in charge since 2013, the group provides poli­cing, many pub­lic works, re­li­gious edu­ca­tion, and health and wel­fare pro­grams.

IS­IS also has a strong pub­lic-re­la­tions arm that trum­pets the group’s suc­cesses and trawls for new re­cruits. It main­tains an act­ive pres­ence on Twit­ter and You­Tube — ap­par­ently a must for any ter­ror­ist in this day and age — and used so­cial me­dia to pub­li­cize claims of a 1,700-per­son mas­sacre in Tikrit over the week­end. Res­id­ents in Riy­adh, Saudi Ar­a­bia, a city far re­moved from the con­flicts in Ir­aq and Syr­ia, found pro­pa­ganda leaf­lets stuffed in­to their car door handles and wind­shields last month.

Just last week, a Twit­ter ac­count called “Sup­port­ers of the Is­lam­ic State” tweeted a car­toon of IS­IS fight­ers fly­ing the black ji­hadist flag on the road to the Ir­aqi cap­it­al. An ac­count named “IS­IS Me­dia Hub” retweeted the car­toon, shown be­low.

IS­IS even re­leases an­nu­al re­ports that de­tail the group’s tac­tics, ob­ject­ives, and pro­gress in its cam­paign to es­tab­lish an Is­lam­ic state. Alex Bil­ger of the In­sti­tute for the Study of War ex­amined the group’s second an­nu­al re­port, re­leased in March. The doc­u­ment is filled with more than 400 pages of de­tailed stat­ist­ics and tac­tic­al notes. Not­ing the group’s or­gan­ized op­er­at­ing struc­ture and soph­ist­ic­ated strategy, he con­cluded that IS­IS is “func­tion­ing as a mil­it­ary rather than as a ter­ror­ist net­work.”

And the re­port is not meant only for in­tern­al con­sump­tion. A well-de­signed cov­er and an in­fograph­ic that breaks down at­tack num­bers by type sug­gest that IS­IS wanted the doc­u­ment to see the light of day.

“This is not a ter­ror­ism prob­lem any­more. This is an army on the move in Ir­aq and Syr­ia, and they are tak­ing ter­rain,” Jes­sica Lewis, an IS­IS ex­pert at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, told Time. “They have shad­ow gov­ern­ments in and around Bagh­dad, and they have an as­pir­a­tion­al goal to gov­ern.”

As IS­IS con­tin­ues to ex­pand its con­trol of Ir­aqi ter­rit­ory and make good on its prom­ise to erase the bound­ary between Ir­aq and Syr­ia, the war it is fight­ing against the Ir­aqi army is look­ing less like a battle between gov­ern­ment and ter­ror­ists and more like a clash between two mil­it­ar­ies with com­pet­ing vis­ions of how to rule their coun­try. IS­IS is in­deed a ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion, but with an un­pre­ced­en­ted em­phas­is on “or­gan­iz­a­tion.” To think of it as any­thing but the state that it as­pires to be is to mis­un­der­stand the threat it presents.

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