All the Trappings of a State
Readers may recall that we have frequently pointed out in previous posts about ISIS that the organization really does have all the trappings of a State. It even has the typical origin of a State: it is now the force monopolist in a territory it has gained by violent conquest. This is how all States have come into being. Once upon a time, marauding bandits tended to simply slay and rob their victims, but the more intelligent of them soon realized that this had a grave disadvantage: it could only be done once. And so they began to leave their victims alive and installed themselves as their rulers. In order to make these occupations work, they ran a protection racket. They told the vanquished that they would protect them against other marauders, on the condition of being paid a share of their production. When this happened for the first time, the first proto-State had been created.
They often look as if they had popped straight out of a Hollywood movie: ISIS soldiers waving the flag of the self-anointed caliphate.
Photo credit: Islamic State (IS)
This basic structure of the State has never changed, although its decoration, ornamentation and detailed workings have been frequently altered. Even modern-day democracies are in essence sophisticated protection rackets, run by a “gang of criminals waving a flag” (as Mark Twain famously noted in this context: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that the only distinctly native American criminal class is Congress.”). The main difference to previous feudal systems is that in theory, anyone can join the gang and become a member of the ruling class. Moreover, the praetorian class that was previously identical with the ruling class has become a distinct group that works as the State’s enforcement agency. While the modern State employs a lot more carrot than stick to convince people of its legitimacy, the fact remains that the velvet glove hides an iron fist.
We would however be remiss not to concede that the pluralistic nature of modern democratic States makes them far more palatable than what preceded them. Modern democracies have come about as a result of a struggle for liberty against long-established hereditary rulers. This revolt has succeeded, but many things have gone wrong down the road. The State has become a Leviathan that is growing ever bigger and more intrusive. It can be shown both logically and empirically that elections won’t be able to change this trend. When it appeared for a time that a trend change might actually be possible in the early 1980s, the election of supposed “small government” supporters failed to alter the long-term trajectory. Ever greater centralization and recently an ever more rapid diminishing of individual liberty have become hallmarks of this trend.
One of the pretexts under which individual rights are increasingly curtailed is the “war on terror” (since terrorism as a tactic of non-state violent groups will never die out, it is a war that can can never be won decisively and will therefore last forever). The appearance of ISIS on the scene in the Middle East is not only a highly deplorable event for those who have fallen under its brutal rule, it is also worrisome for everybody in the so-called “free world”; not so much due to the threat ISIS as such may pose, but due to the threat its existence poses indirectly, by giving the State additional leeway to arrogate more powers to itself and curtail the freedom of citizens in the process.
Documents About IS are Surfacing in Syria
The reason for writing this update is that an investigation by journalists of German news magazine “Der Spiegel” has discovered a trove of IS documents in Syria. These documents show not only the organizational structure of ISIS, but also how the group has planned and executed its takeover of Syria and Northern Iraq. It makes for quite fascinating reading. As der Spiegel writes, the plan for the takeover of Syria by what would later become the “Islamic State” seemed to have fairly little to do with religion:
“It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an “Islamic Intelligence State” – a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.”
It is little wonder that the organization fundamentally resembles the Stasi rather than a religiously inspired group. The man who allegedly came up with the plan was a former intelligence officer in the air force of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist state.
The organizational chart of the Islamic State, originally drawn up with a ball pen by Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a.k.a. “Haji Bakr”. Bakr was a former colonel in the intelligence division of Saddam Hussein’s air force – click to enlarge.
Below are a few pertinent excerpts from the Spiegel report:
“[…] when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multi-layered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history.
Until now, much of the information about IS has come from fighters who had defected and data sets from the IS internal administration seized in Baghdad. But none of this offered an explanation for the group’s meteoric rise to prominence, before air strikes in the late summer of 2014 put a stop to its triumphal march.
The story of this collection of documents begins at a time when few had yet heard of the “Islamic State.” When Iraqi national Haji Bakr traveled to Syria as part of a tiny advance party in late 2012, he had a seemingly absurd plan: IS would capture as much territory as possible in Syria. Then, using Syria as a beachhead, it would invade Iraq.
Bakr took up residence in an inconspicuous house in Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo. The town was a good choice. In the 1980s, many of its residents had gone to work in the Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia. When they returned, some brought along radical convictions and contacts. In 2013, Tal Rifaat would become IS’ stronghold in Aleppo Province, with hundreds of fighters stationed there.
It was there that the “Lord of the Shadows,” as some called him, sketched out the structure of the Islamic State, all the way down to the local level, compiled lists relating to the gradual infiltration of villages and determined who would oversee whom.
The details of Bakr’s plan reveal how a new State was going to be erected following the conquest of the areas ISIS was putting under surveillance well before anyone had ever heard of the group. ISIS learned who was who in the zoo in every town it infiltrated and therefore knew who was likely to become an ally, who could be blackmailed and who had to be exterminated:
[Bakr’s] blueprint was implemented with astonishing accuracy in the ensuing months. The plan would always begin with the same detail: The group recruited followers under the pretense of opening a Dawah office, an Islamic missionary center. Of those who came to listen to lectures and attend courses on Islamic life, one or two men were selected and instructed to spy on their village and obtain a wide range of information. To that end, Haji Bakr compiled lists such as the following:
- List the powerful families.
- Name the powerful individuals in these families.
- Find out their sources of income.
- Name names and the sizes of (rebel) brigades in the village.
- Find out the names of their leaders, who controls the brigades and their political orientation.
- Find out their illegal activities (according to Sharia law), which could be used to blackmail them if necessary.
The spies were told to note such details as whether someone was a criminal or a homosexual, or was involved in a secret affair, so as to have ammunition for blackmailing later. “We will appoint the smartest ones as Sharia sheiks,” Bakr had noted. “We will train them for a while and then dispatch them.” As a postscript, he had added that several “brothers” would be selected in each town to marry the daughters of the most influential families, in order to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge.”
The spies were to find out as much as possible about the target towns: Who lived there, who was in charge, which families were religious, which Islamic school of religious jurisprudence they belonged to, how many mosques there were, who the imam was, how many wives and children he had and how old they were. Other details included what the imam’s sermons were like, whether he was more open to the Sufi, or mystical variant of Islam, whether he sided with the opposition or the regime, and what his position was on jihad. Bakr also wanted answers to questions like: Does the imam earn a salary? If so, who pays it? Who appoints him? Finally: How many people in the village are champions of democracy?
The agents were supposed to function as seismic signal waves, sent out to track down the tiniest cracks, as well as age-old faults within the deep layers of society – in short, any information that could be used to divide and subjugate the local population. The informants included former intelligence spies, but also regime opponents who had quarreled with one of the rebel groups. Some were also young men and adolescents who needed money or found the work exciting. Most of the men on Bakr’s list of informants, such as those from Tal Rifaat, were in their early twenties, but some were as young as 16 or 17.
The plans also include areas like finance, schools, daycare, the media and transportation. But there is a constantly recurring, core theme, which is meticulously addressed in organizational charts and lists of responsibilities and reporting requirements: surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping.
From the very beginning, the plan was to have the intelligence services operate in parallel, even at the provincial level. A general intelligence department reported to the “security emir” for a region, who was in charge of deputy-emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an “intelligence service and information manager” for the district reported to each of these deputy-emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir’s deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.
It is also fascinating how it all apparently began: with the US-appointed post-war governor of Iraq Paul Bremer’s decision to completely disband Saddam Hussein’s army. Readers may recall that this was already widely branded a grievous mistake shortly after it happened, as it soon became clear that the armed resistance to the US occupation included many former members of Iraq’s army. It seems that these ex-army members also formed the core of ISIS:
“Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein’s omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren’t being spied on.
There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr’s writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.
In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later “caliph,” the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.
Bakr was “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi’s cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. “Colonel Samir,” as Hashimi calls him, “was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician.” But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, “dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed.” Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies.”
We recommend reading the entire article at Der Spiegel – it inter alia recounts how ISIS in its early days even allied itself briefly with the Assad regime – in spite of Assad being a member of a Shi’ite sect. Assad’s air force would only bomb competing rebel forces, and ISIS would in return protect Assad’s ground troops. This alliance of convenience allowed it to reconquer bit by bit territory it had previously lost to other rebel forces in Syria. ISIS unilaterally ended its alliance with Assad’s forces after its conquest of Mosul in Iraq: It had captured so much high-end weaponry there that its leadership felt that it no longer needed Assad.
Lastly, Der Spiegel rightly warns that the possible ramifications of the growing conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims shouldn’t be underestimated. This conflict is one of the pillars of the strategy employed by IS and it is the major driver of the current war between Yemen’s Houthi tribes and Saudi Arabia as well. It could easily engulf more countries in which either confession represents a significant minority. Sunni-dominated areas that have been reconquered by Shi’ite militias loyal to Baghdad in Iraq have been subjected to looting, murder and rape by the victorious militias. It is a good bet that the inhabitants will be on the side of IS if/when it returns. As Der Spiegel writes:
“As the West’s attention is primarily focused on the possibility of terrorist attacks, a different scenario has been underestimated: the approaching intra-Muslim war between Shiites and Sunnis. Such a conflict would allow IS to graduate from being a hated terror organization to a central power.
Already today, the frontlines in Syria, Iraq and Yemen follow this confessional line, with Shiite Afghans fighting against Sunni Afghans in Syria and IS profiting in Iraq from the barbarism of brutal Shiite militias. Should this ancient Islam conflict continue to escalate, it could spill over into confessionally mixed states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon. In such a case, IS propaganda about the approaching apocalypse could become a reality. In its slipstream, an absolutist dictatorship in the name of God could be established.”
We would note to this that “absolutist dictatorships in the name of God” already exist in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is clearly a theocracy, and the territory controlled by the Islamic State is one as well. The shariah is rigorously enforced in both regions. Iran is ruled by a Shi’ite theocracy, albeit a theocracy with a significantly less absolutist approach than that of Saudi Arabia’s rulers (after all, there are elections in Iran and occasionally they are won by reformers). In this context it is actually quite bizarre that Saudi Arabia is regarded as a “valued ally” by the West, while Iran is routinely demonized.
ISIS still Marching on in Iraq
Further above, Der Spiegel asserts that the US bombing campaign has “put a stop to the triumphal march of ISIS”. This is only partially correct. While the Iraqi army led by fighters and generals from Iran and with the help of Shi’ite militias managed to retake the small, but highly symbolic town of Tikrit, IS has decided to attack Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. It first took three villages in the vicinity of the city, and the most recent reports on the proceedings suggest that it has essentially all but succeeded in conquering Ramadi itself. As e.g. Jason Dietz at anti-war reports:
“The loss of the Anbar Provincial capital city of Ramadi seems to be all but finished tonight, with Iraqi Defense Ministry officials no longer claiming they can still win, but rather promising to launch a “counter-offensive” to try to retake the city in the future.
Fighting was reported at the gates of the city, but most of the activity around the outskirts of Ramadi was civilians fleeing into the countryside, hoping to avoid a blood siege. The latest reports out of the city are that ISIS forces are no more than 500 meters from the center of the city, and are almost certain to wrap up their push in the next day or two. US military leaders have shrugged off the imminent loss of the city and its half million residents as “ not central to the future of Iraq ,” insisting there was no serious impact to the overall war.”
That high-ranking US military figures insist that the loss of a city of 500,000 located just 60 miles West of Baghdad is somehow “unimportant” is plainly ridiculous. As Dietz notes:
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey is dismissing the talk of Ramadi’s fall would be no big deal, and adding that the city is “not central to the future of Iraq.”
The reality, however, is that the US was making a big deal about the need to make inroads in the Anbar Province just last week, and now instead is facing the loss of the Anbar capital to ISIS, and another big setback for Iraqi troops.
Ultimately, Gen. Dempsey’s attempts to downplay what seems like an obviously significant loss may simply be an attempt at damage control, and a reflection that the US believes that battle is already lost, and might as well try to lose gracefully.
It’s clouding the US narrative, however, that the partial recovery of the much smaller city of Tikrit, itself in a much smaller province, was treated as a huge accomplishment, while the loss of Ramadi is being shrugged off.”
This highlights that it is quite difficult to get rid of IS. It was no doubt dented by the airstrikes, and forced to make tactical retreats here and there, but it appears it is not yet “losing its momentum”. As we have argued from the beginning of the air campaign, it would be unlikely to be sufficient to dislodge IS (while the air strikes have weakened IS, the hard work on the ground was performed by militias loyal to either Baghdad or the Kurdish administration). Interestingly, the successful attack on Ramadi was accomplished by activating “sleeper cells” in the city and by employing diversion attacks elsewhere to draw the government’s forces away – in line with the late Hadji Bakr’s strategy.
Moreover, as noted further above, the government’s reconquest of cities like Tikrit has a downside: The Shi’ite militias cannot be restrained and are eager to exact vengeance. Given that the IS fighters tend to withdraw once it becomes clear they can no longer hold on to a town, the local civilian Sunni population tends to be on the receiving end of the militias’ wrath. This creates additional support for IS and makes it very difficult for the government to find Sunni allies.
As a further aside, the IS presence in Libya, where Islamist factions have allied themselves with the “caliphate”, is reportedly also stepping up its activities of late.
The investigation by Der Spiegel shows something that many have already suspected previously: while ISIS wears the cloak of religion, it isn’t really a traditional jihadist organization. However, the fact that it is exploiting the Sunni-Shia divide and that many of its enemies are beginning to look at the conflict through a similar lens, serves to deepen the divisions between the two major branches of Islam across the entire region.
This could easily lead to an even bigger conflagration in the Middle East. In fact, as the war in Yemen shows, the Sunni-Shia conflict is already expanding. Recall in this context that a Shia-led revolution in Bahrain against the Sunni ruling house (Sunnis are a minority in Bahrain) was subdued by Saudi Arabia with military force as well. It seems highly likely that this has merely temporarily suppressed the conflict there.
It remains to be said that much of this is the fruit of endless interventions in the region. When the US attacked Saddam’s regime by invading Iraq in 2003, it was akin to killing a spider on the wall by bulldozing the entire garage, as one observer remarked at the time. After more than 25 years of bombing or otherwise attacking Iraq, the result is a country continually on the verge of becoming a so-called “failed state”. Interventions elsewhere in the region haven’t fared any better. Libya has descended into chaos and arms given to “moderate” Syrian rebels have generally ended up in the hands of IS.
The people inhabiting the region cannot be faulted for wanting to get rid of assorted tinpot dictators, but as we have pointed out in a previous missive, it is not the lack of democracy, but primarily a lack of economic freedom that is a problem in most Arab countries. It was in fact a major motive inspiring the “Arab Spring” type uprisings (see “How the Arab Winter Could Become Spring” for details on this argument). Western interventions meanwhile are routinely marked by a failure to understand the major social, religious and economic forces driving events in the region and how meddling tends to upset what are often delicate balances – assuming, as it were, that chaos isn’t the desired outcome anyway, as part of a “divide and rule” strategy. Unfortunately, this suspicion cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Table and map by: Der Spiegel