The jihadist governance dilemma

July 18

On June 16,demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State slogans as they carry the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. (AP)

After making astounding territorial gains in its war against the Iraqi government, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – which has refashioned itself “the Islamic State” – declared that it had reestablished the caliphate. The group’s gains put a spotlight on several questions related to Salafi jihadists’ efforts at building states. Can jihadists govern? Can they sustainably control and extract resources from territory and populations? As Ariel Ahram recently wrote for The Monkey Cage, insurgent groups face a “resource curse” that has a significant impact on their conflicts; this is true of Iraq, where the Islamic State has gained momentum in its efforts to control oil and water resources. But beyond these factors that confront any insurgency, jihadist groups face distinctive governance problems that they won’t be able to overcome in the near future, and will struggle mightily to address in the longer term.

Academics have grown increasingly interested in non-state actors’ attempts at governance. In Inside Rebellion, Jeremy Weinstein finds that a violent non-state actor’s discipline is central to determining whether it will build governance structures and protect populations from violence or kill indiscriminately. Weinstein concludes that richer organizations have a harder time maintaining discipline because they attract opportunists obsessed with immediate gain, and thus predisposed to violence, while resource-poor organizations instead attract committed individuals with a shared sense of purpose. Thus, Weinstein believes resource-poor organizations are more likely to establish governance and provide services. In Rebel Rulers, Zachariah Cherian Mampilly examines the variance in governing strategies among insurgent groups, focusing on the groups’ initial leadership decisions and subsequent interactions with various actors. Among other things, he argues insurgent groups are more likely to establish governance if the state had significant penetration prior to insurgent takeover of a region.

Jihadists have now had several experiences with governance: In Iraq (2006-08), Somalia (2007-12), Yemen (2011-12), North Mali (2012-13), and again in Iraq (2014-??). There have been some efforts by scholars to examine jihadist governance, but given how important governance is to jihadists, this is an area ripe for more detailed examination.

Jihadists are afflicted by a fundamental dilemma: They cannot attain their goals if they don’t govern, yet the record shows them repeatedly failing at governance efforts. Paradoxically, when these groups appear strongest – when they gain control of state-like assets – their greatest weaknesses are exposed.

One well-established Salafi jihadist goal is the forcible imposition of sharia (Islamic law). The late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in 1998 that al-Qaeda’s struggle should continue until “the Islamic sharia is enforced on the land of God.” This goal has remained constant, as a militant’s notebook that Reuters journalists recently unearthed near the Yemeni town of al-Mahfad memorializes similar goals: “Establishing an Islamic state that rules by Islamic sharia law.”

Jihadist groups’ rigid religious outlook drives their belief that sharia must be imposed and also the shape that sharia takes for them. Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Aaron Y. Zelin notes that the Islamic State’s city charter after the group captured Mosul on June 10 provided for amputation of thieves’ hands, required timely performance of all required prayers, and forbade drugs and alcohol. Further, “all shrines and graves will be destroyed, since they are considered polytheistic.”

This charter has much in common with previous jihadist governance efforts: They tend to have a legalistic and all-encompassing interpretation of sharia, insisting upon even obscure rules. In a previous period of jihadist rule over Mosul – when the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), controlled the city until May 2008 – citizens were required to follow intricate and bizarre rules. AQI banned the side-by-side display of tomatoes and cucumbers by food vendors because the group viewed the arrangement as sexually provocative, in addition to banning a local bread known as sammoun, the use of ice, and barbers’ use of electric razors. These restrictions might be Monty Python-esque, but the punch line was grim: Iraqis were killed for violating them.

Jihadist groups’ rigid understanding of Islamic law and brutal methods of coercing populations give rise to the governance challenges they confront: Those of legitimacy, effectiveness and sustainability.

Jihadist groups face a double test with respect to the legitimacy of their rule. The first test relates to the degree of acceptance by the subject population. Sociologist and political economist Max Weber defines legitimacy as a relationship of authority between ruler and ruled that both sides perceive as binding. Jihadist groups will be legitimate in the eyes of the population if that population comes to see these groups as having the right to dictate behavior, and views the groups’ rules as worthy of being obeyed.

Jihadist groups’ alienation of the population caused them deep problems during the Iraq war, when AQI was the dominant actor in Anbar province and ruthlessly imposed its will, torturing, slaughtering and even beheading citizens to eliminate dissent. This sparked a backlash among Sunni Anbari tribes, and in September 2006 a number of sheikhs publicly announced their plan to fight al-Qaeda, calling their movement the Sahwa, or “Awakening.” The turning of tribes and former insurgents made a significant difference in Anbar, and the program was expanded beyond that province. Though it later made a comeback, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate had been largely defanged by early 2009 – a victim of its excesses and the surge in U.S. troops.

Al-Qaeda eventually tried to ameliorate this vulnerability. A letter that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emir Abdelmalek Droukdel wrote to his fighters in North Mali when they controlled territory there warned of “the extreme speed with which you applied sharia, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion.”

Internal legitimacy problems don’t mean hard-line jihadist rule will automatically trigger a successful “awakening”-style movement. AQI might have wiped out the Anbari Sahwa, as it did to previous uprisings, had it not been for the U.S. military’s ability to defend the movement. Jihadists have been able to suppress resistance in places like the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State has dealt with dissent by imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents.

In addition to this internal legitimacy challenge, jihadists face external challenges to their legitimacy because neighboring states, global powers and major NGOs view jihadist rule as illegitimate. Jihadist groups’ adversaries mobilize as these groups begin to govern because the urgency of the jihadist threat is heightened once these groups seize territory. Further, taking on state-like qualities makes them more vulnerable to military operations.

Jihadist groups additionally face the challenge of effectiveness. One aspect of a political actor’s effectiveness is determined by whether it can assume basic functions of government, including delivery of services (such as trash collection, water and electricity, and road maintenance). Commentators have noted jihadist groups’ increasing provision of social services, but actually governing territory is a different matter.

Jihadist groups have trouble replacing the state as the primary service provider because they lack experience in service delivery and the will to refocus on more mundane aspects of governance, and also because their rule is vulnerable. A letter that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi wrote recently acknowledged these problems. In explaining AQAP’s decision not to declare an emirate in southern Yemen, Wuhayshi stated that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership advised against it because “we wouldn’t be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable.”

Governments also frequently cut revenue to areas under jihadist control, forcing jihadists to pay civil servants or lose a valuable portion of the workforce. While jihadists frequently lose the support of the population because of brutal coercive measures, there is also a more gradual process of disillusionment when the groups fail to effectively provide goods and services.

A final governance challenge that jihadists face is sustainability – the ability to govern over significant periods. Sustainable governance generally requires reaching some modus vivendi with other actors, domestic and international, and at least minimal capacity to control borders, territory and populations. The Islamic State’s failure to achieve such a modus vivendi is apparent in Syria, where it has spent more time locked in combat with other rebel groups than with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Further, jihadist groups’ aforementioned inability to provide services effectively undermines the sustainability of their governance efforts. Jihadist groups’ lack of capacity generally forces them to try to capture preexisting institutions or work with others who are able to provide these services. Regardless of their success, sustaining the population’s support becomes more difficult for jihadist groups as time passes.

Governance will continue to be a challenge for jihadist groups. These actors have grown more competent at what may be described as “pre-governance” efforts – such as undertaking sophisticated dawa (proselytism) efforts or providing limited social services. Yet legitimate, effective, and sustainable governance has eluded them.

Can jihadist groups become more “legitimate” in the eyes of the international community? For now the answer is no, in part due to their inflexibility. Most Salafi jihadists are uninterested in acquiring legitimacy because they view the international system as illegitimate. But this may change: Jihadists may develop strategic principles that seek to ameliorate their governance disadvantages. Another factor that may help make jihadist rule more lasting is the increasing number of places where jihadist groups are locked in a cycle of governing territory, retreating as their enemies advance, and then regrouping. Even when major jihadist groups seem to have been defeated – as AQI and Nigeria’s Boko Haram did in 2009 – they prove resilient. As the number of these destructive cycles grows, jihadist groups could find themselves maintaining power for extended periods as the international system is overwhelmed.

This risk makes it important for Western countries to exploit the jihadists’ governance dilemma. Given the brutality of jihadist rule, this is an area ripe for sophisticated information-operations campaigns that starkly illustrate life under their dictates. Western countries should also carefully examine lessons learned from localized resistance to jihadists, by groups like the Sahwa or Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa in Somalia, and develop new ways to support them. Local resistance depends on opportunities for success: If groups agitate against jihadists but are crushed, they might serve only as a cautionary tale. Any examination of these uprisings should focus on effective points of intervention. For example, during the Islamic State’s recent advance, it relied on an awkward coalition of ex-Baathists, tribesmen and other groups whose goals clashed with the jihadists’. Is such a coalition more likely to fall apart early, or after jihadists have established their rule? When will the United States attempting to support local resistance groups have the opposite effect from that intended, and delegitimize rather than bolster them?

Moreover, since a dominant path by which jihadist groups can enjoy long-term rule is widening circles of instability, Western countries should be reluctant to take actions likely to produce regional chaos. A quintessential example is NATO’s war in Libya, which was partly designed to speed up the Arab Spring, but has proved advantageous to jihadists: It left behind a country beset by instability, whose chaos had a destabilizing effect on such neighbors as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.

Though the jihadist impulse to brutal excess presents opportunities, this vulnerability will not automatically result in setbacks for the groups responsible. As jihadist groups gain power, their weaknesses are exposed – and Western states’ goal as jihadists gain strength should be more ambitious than just pushing them back. The goal should be to deliver a killing blow.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Amichai Magen is the head of the Governance & Political Violence Program and the Marc & Anita Abramowitz Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC, Herzliya, and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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