By Vaios Fylaktos
The establishment of the Islamic State Caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria by ISIS was a unique event in international relations. For the first time, a territory covering more than one states was controlled by a terrorist group. The ISIS based on an Al-Qaeda’s initial idea and exploiting the circumstances transformed itself from a terrorist group into a state-like actor with territory, people, military and governance system. For about 3 years (2014-2017), the Islamic State held the 40% of Iraq and the 33,3% of Syria with total population of 12 million and managed to establish civilian services and an economic system with bil-lions of revenue like a normal state. In 2017, after fierce battles, the Caliphate collapsed and since then, the territory of ISIS is limited to some minor rural areas in Syria but the threat still to exist. The object of this article is to explain how in a few years an Al-Qaeda’s affiliate became a state-like actor.
The formation of ISI and the establishment of the Islamic State
In 2005,Ayman al-Zawahiri (then deputy leader of Al-Qaeda) introduced a plan to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to establish an Islamic State in the territory of Iraq. The goal was to fill the security vacuum left in Iraq by departing American forces. The purpose of this plan was the restoration of a Caliphate, similar to the early Islamic one. In 2006, after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his successor Abu Ayyub al-Masri dissolved the AQI and announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its leader. In 2010, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed and was succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In 2013, the ISI exploiting tthe evolution of Syrian civil war expanded the activities of ISI in Syria and rebranded as ISIS. At the same time, the ISIS exploiting the frag-ile coherence and the security vacuum of Iraq started military operations in an effort to conquer territory.
Ιn December 2013, after a siege, ISIS forces took control of Fallujah and some parts of Ramadi, the first significant achievements of ISIS. Just a few weeks later, ISIS seized Raqqa and proclaimed it as the capital of its Emirate. In June 2014, it launched an offensive on Mosul and Tikrit and after a few days, took control of the strategic border crossing between Iraq and Syria. On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State Caliphate which extended from the Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its first Caliph.
Islamic State’s Administration and Governance
As mentioned above, the most important accomplishment of ISIS were not its significant victories in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria or the terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe but its own conversion from a terrorist group into a state-like actor with a bureaucracy, administrative system and civilian services.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Caliphate was the Caliph (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) who held the ultimate political and religious authority. The Caliph had two Deputies one for Iraq (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani) and one for Syria (Abu Ali al-Anbari).
The executive branch of the Islamic state consisted of the Shariah, Shura, Provincial, Mili-tary, Security-Intelligence, Media, Financial and Fighters Assistance Councils. They were re-sponsible for the military and administrative organization of the Caliphate, providing advice to Abu Bakr-Al Baghdadi, were supervising the military operations, the strategic planning and the civilian services and despite the Caliphate’s collapse they are still active today.
The Shariah Council theoretically was the most powerful body of the Islamic State: it had six members and was supervised directly by the Caliph. Its duties included the selection of the Caliph, the implementation of the Shariah law and the ideological outreach (dawa). It was supervising the Shariah police, the courts and the criminal justice and was assisted by the Shariah Commissions.
The Shura Council was the highest advisory body of the Islamic State. It comprised between 9 to 11 members and is headed until today by Abu Arkan al-Ameri. It must approve the ap-pointment of the Caliph by the Shariah Council and can dismiss him in case he cannot exe-cute his duties in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Shariah Law. It has leg-islative authorities and is responsible for passing directives from the Caliph through the chain of command and ensure that they will be implemented.
The Provincial Council is under the total control of Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (Abu Bakr’s deputy for Iraq). At its peak period, the Islamic State was divided into 24 provinces (Wila-yat) 12 in Iraq and 12 in Syria. Each province had a governor (Wali) who was mainly respon-sible for the civilian administration. The provinces were divided into sectors; each governor was supported by a Shariah commander (religious-judicial authority), a military commander and a security commander. The objective was for each province to have the same structure with the central command.
The Military Council is one of the most vital councils of the Islamic State. It is headed by the War Emir and its composition varied between 9 and 13 members. The Council is divid-ed into sectors, the General Staff, the special forces, the logistical management and the suicide operations. Its main duties include the planning and supervision the military opera-tions. Its most important responsibilities are the expansion and the defense of the Islamic State’s territory.
The Security and Intelligence Council is an equally important department of the Islamic State. It handles all security and intelligence affairs. It is responsible for the Caliph’s protec-tion from external threats and inside plots. Its responsibilities include counterespionage, counterintelligence, collection of foreign intelligence, covert operations and protection of the communications. A special group under its authority is responsible for political assassi-nations, kidnappings and money collection. It had branches in every province.
The Media Council was an essential part of the Islamic State’s structure and supervised an army of researchers, writers, bloggers, video makers and social media recruiters. Its main responsibilities are the propaganda and the recruitment of foreign fighters via social media . The Dabiq propaganda magazine which was published in Arabic, French, English and Ger-man was under its supervision.
The Economic Council was the Treasury of the Islamic State. It managed the sales of oil and weapons, agricultural revenues, the formerly Iraqi and Syrian government funds, taxes and foreign donations. After the Caliphate’s collapse it manages the finances of the group.
In addition, the government structure included the Fighters Assistance Council, responsi-ble for the housing, funding and care of foreign fighters and their families, and the Shari-at/Troika the secretariat of the grand Mufti.
From what we saw through the ISIS’s social media, the governance of the Islamic State was divided into two boards: the Αdministrative and the Muslim services. Elementary educa-tion, Shariah institutes, law enforcement (both religious and local), courts, the Islamic Out-reach (Dawa), and the tribal relations were under the administrative board. The Depart-ment of Muslim Services was responsible for the provision of the humanitarian aid, water and electricity. Under its responsibility operated industrial bread factories in order to satis-fy the nutritional needs of the urban population. Every province had a governance office, an electricity office which was responsible for the power supply network and the management of heating and electrical power facilities. Every hospital and humanitarian assistance entity were supervised by an Administrator appointed by the Governance office.
The finances of the Islamic State
The fast military and territorial expansion made ISIS the most powerful terrorist group in the contemporary jihad. This expansion brought under the authority of ISIS a wide range of industrial and commercial activities which included the exploitation of natural resources, raw materials, agricultural products and former Iraqi and Syrian gold and cash reserves. Combined with the taxes, confiscations and fees, these constituted the main revenue sources of the Islamic State.
According to the ICSR report “Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes” (p.6-9), the annual revenue of the Islamic State in 2014 was about 1.9 billion US dollars. The ISIS received from taxation 300–400 million $, from the oil extraction about 150–450 million and from the kidnappings 20–40 million. But the biggest share of ISIS’s revenue for 2014 came from looting and confiscations: the earnings are estimated between $500m to $1bn. In the two following years (2015 and 2016), the overall revenues of the Islamic State were reduced significantly to $520–870m in 2016. In 2017, the ISIS lost al-most its territory and, by extension ,its income sources.
The Global Coalition against ISIS and the collapse of Caliphate
In August 2014, the U.S. launched a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and some weeks later it formed the U.S-led Global Coalition against the organisation. Over 60 states and partner organizations agreed to participate in the effort to defeat the Islamic State and more than 25 states joined in the military action which included coordinated air strikes, special ground operations and training/equipping of local security forces. The territorial losses for ISIS started in 2015. In January 2015, the Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by U.S air-strikes drove ISIS out of several towns north of Mosul. At the same time, Kurdish forces in Syria regained the border town of Kobani. In April 2015, the Iraqi forces with the support of the U.S retook Tikrit, their first significant victory against ISIS. In February 2016, after months of fighting the Iraqi forces recaptured Ramandi and in June Fallujah. In July 2017,the Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi announced the victory against ISIS and the collapse of Caliphate in Iraq. Some months later the Syrian Democratic Forces (opposition) forces took full control of Raqqa (the Caliphate’s capital) after months of heavy bombard-ment by the Global Coalition. In the same year, the Syrian government forces backed by Russian air strikes and the special forces of Iran recaptured the western bank of the Euphra-tes River, seizing the cities of Deir el-Zour, Mayadin and Boukamal on the border with Iraq. In September 2018, the SDF forces backed by the Global Coalition airstrikes took control of the last significant territory held by ISIS, the eastern sector of Deir el-Zour in Syria. In March 2019, the SDF declared the capture of Baghuz and the collapse of the Caliphate in Syria. In October, then U.S President Donald Trump announced the extermination of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a military operation in the village of Barisha (Syria) near the Turkish borders.
ISIS during the 2020s
Despite the collapse of the Caliphate, ISIS continues to maintain and expand its global presence through affiliates. Some months after the establishment of Caliphate, several ji-hadi groups around the globe affiliated themselves with ISIS ( e.g., Boko Haram) and became part of the decentralized structure of ISIS. In our days, the ISIS has affiliates in Libya (Tripoli, Barqa and Fezzan), in Yemen (Sanaa), in Mount Sinai, in Afghanistan (Khorasan), in northeast-ern Nigeria, with cross-border attacks on Cameroon, Niger and Chad (Islamic State West Af-rica Province). In Mozambique with cross-border attacks in DRC, Congo, Uganda and Tanza-nia (Islamic State’s Central African Province ). In Philippines(Abu Sayyaf Group) and in Cauca-sus ( Dagestan).According to MeirAmit Intillegence and TerrorismInformation Center report (p.1-4) in 2021, ISIS carried out 2,705 terrorist acts around the globe, compared to 2,718in 2020. Most of them were carried out in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
The initial idea of Al-Qaeda to restore the early Islamic Caliphate in Iraq in the middle of 2000s became a reality about a decade later by ISIS which exploited the structural prob-lems of Iraq and the outbreak of Syrian civil war. In 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of Islamic State Caliphate. The Global Coalition against ISIS as well as the local populations/forces played a significant role in the collapse of Caliphate. Despite mili-tary defeat and its significant weakening, ISIS continues its terrorist activities around the globe and remains a critical threat to global stability.
For further reading :
1. ISIS | Counter Extremism Project .
2. ICSR-Report-Caliphate-in-Decline-An-Estimate-of-Islamic-States-Financial-Fortunes.pdf .
3. Timeline: the Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State | Wilson Center .
4. ISIS_Governance.pdf (understandingwar.org).
5. Summary of ISIS Activity around the Globe in 2021 – The Meir Amit Intelligence and Ter-rorism Information Center (terrorism-info.org.il)