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How much of a state is the Islamic State?

Smoke rises behind an Islamic State flag after fighting between Islamic State militants and Iraqi security forces in Diyala province, eastern Iraq, Nov. 24, 2014. (Reuters)

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.

The group now commonly known as the “Islamic State,” which controls vast amounts of territory in Eastern Iraq and Western Syria, is unlike most Islamist militant groups in its demonstrated ability to control territory and establish a regularized system of governance. The growing aspiration for the creation of “Islamic” state institutions is reflected in the evolution of the group’s name, from al-Qaeda in Iraq, to the Islamic State of Iraq, to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and then simply to the Islamic State, with the June 2014 announcement of the formation of a caliphate.

The Islamic State group has many of the attributes of a new “start-up” organization that is entering the wider market of Islamist thinking around statehood. The group has attracted a great deal of attention because it has brought disruptive innovation into Islamic political thought, both in terms of ideology (using common Islamist concepts in new ways) and what it is doing on the ground (taking and holding wealth and territory). Incumbent Islamist actors have been rattled by the Islamic State’s material success and the group’s attraction for emergent jihadis. Much of this attraction is not due to the group’s “Islamic” ideology, which is bitterly contested, but because of its demonstrated success at building institutions and creating prosperity for a select group of its patrons.

Rather than assessing the “Islamic” qualities of the Islamic State group, I will focus instead on the “stateness” of this group as it has developed in early 2015. The contemporary name of this group implies both that it is Islamic and also that it is a state. My principal argument is that while the Islamic State does not have all of the characteristics that we usually attribute to states, it does have many of them, and that its trajectory to date is toward increasing levels of stateness. This matters a great deal, not only because it shapes the lives of the people who live within Islamic State-controlled territory, but also because it has implications for how outside actors should engage with this group. In particular, the more the Islamic State actually resembles a state, with its security provision and regulatory institutions, the less international actors will be able to “degrade” or “destroy” the group without also degrading or destroying the fundamental functions of the state. Attempts to degrade and destroy these emergent state institutions will likely lead to anarchy, which often comes with profoundly negative consequences.

Scholars and practitioners of international relations often view states as the primary unit of interaction within the international system and as legitimate components of the international order. To date, the Islamic State does not align well with this notion of statehood. A second, and in this case more productive, way of viewing states, however, rests in the understanding of states as institutions that carry out specific functions to be successful. Effective states have a wide range of functions, including “rule of law,” “administrative control” and “creation of citizenship rights,” among many others. For my purposes, I have divided the key functions of a state into six broad categories. These are organized around the roles that states play with respect to their citizens, including extracting resources (e.g., taxes, labor and loyalty) and providing benefits (e.g., security, social and economic benefits). The six functions, against which I measure the Islamic State’s performance as a state, are as follows: 1) tax and labor acquisition, 2) defining and regulating citizenship, 3) providing international security and managing international relations, 4) ensuring domestic security, 5) providing social services and 6) facilitating economic growth.

How has the Islamic State performed on each of these functional measures of effective statehood to date? It is useful to consider neighboring capable states in the Middle East (Turkey or Saudi Arabia, for example) to see how the Islamic State compares. Based on the available evidence, I assign the Islamic State an approximate score on each of these functions as compared to these internationally recognized states.

#1 Tax and Labor Acquisition

Capable states have developed the means to extract wealth (in the form of taxes) and labor (in the form of military or other service) from their citizens. By all accounts, the Islamic state group has been highly extractive from the population in the territory it controls. It is extractive at widely differential rates, however, ranging from the complete appropriation of property from religious minorities and others that it sees as at odds with its vision for an Islamic caliphate, to the more modest collection of “zakat,” which its sees as an Islamic duty. The Islamic State has multiple large revenue streams, including from foreign sympathizers, oil revenues (at a rate of up to $2 million a day prior to airstrikes on oil facilities) and ransoms from kidnapping (estimated at $20 million in 2014).However, it has increasingly funded its operations through multiple forms of taxation of the population under its control, such as a “protection tax,” Islamic “zakat,” and utility fees, including up to $12 million a month in the Mosul region of Iraq. Likewise, the Islamic State’s media-based recruiting engine is robust, attracting potential fighters from many different national and class backgrounds and then making it very difficult for recruits to return home. The Islamic State thus has both dynamic recruitment and retention mechanisms that ensure a supply of military personnel. Score: 7/10

#2 Defining and Regulating Citizenship

Capable states invest significant energy in defining the rules for citizenship and in enumerating the rights and duties of their citizens. In the June 2014 announcement of the Islamic caliphate, there are some signs of an emergent set of norms around citizenship in the Islamic State, although it is not defined explicitly in those terms. In this document, citizenship appears to be based on an Islamic religious affiliation and is extraterritorial, applying to all Muslims who choose to align themselves with the caliphate. Citizens under the caliphate have the duty to forsake all other national obligations and pledge loyalty to the caliph, at the moment when the Islamic State’s military forces enter their territory. Loyalty to the caliph is the overriding obligation of those belonging to the Islamic State, and privileges of citizenship include the promise of honor, power and blessing from God. There have been some developments in the Islamic State toward the notion of citizenship, though it is hard to reconcile the aspirations of its rhetoric regarding the benefits of participation in the state with the realities of its abusive practices on the ground. Score: 4/10

#3 Managing International Relations

One of the core functions of a state is to manage relationships with other states in the international system and to provide security from external threats. This is an area where the Islamic State has done a very poor job of behaving like a normal state in the international system. Indeed, the Islamic State explicitly rejects the validity of the contemporary state system, which it views as based on un-Islamic notions of global governance established outside of the Islamic community (ummah) framework in which it articulates its mission. The Islamic State has bulldozed boundary markers between Iraq and Syria to emphasize its rejection of existing state boundaries, and has actively courted attacks from state actors both near and far. Despite this open rejection of the existing international system, the Islamic State does play into international norms by directly challenging outside states, and therefore it engages directly in international relations, if in hostile ways. It also performs some of the international functions of states by developing routes to get its oil to market, attracting international “investment,” seeking “immigrants” from abroad, signaling its intentions to international audiences and threatening the interests and territory of neighboring states. Overall, however, the Islamic State acts least like a state when it comes to international affairs and performs both disruptively and poorly in this arena. Score: 2/10

#4 Providing Domestic Security

This is the area by which viable states are most often measured – can they exert an effective monopoly of violence and establish the rule of law over their territory? In the case of the Islamic State the answer is mostly, but certainly not completely. The Islamic State in early 2015 operates much more like a military organization than either a rebel insurgency or a local police force, although it also plays both of those roles. It has tactical units that report to a central command, that are highly metrics-driven and that are designed to clear and hold territory, ensuring subsequent security within that territory. In the Islamic State’s most recent report (al-Naba) of its military operations in Iraq, the extent of the organization’s military capacity is evident in remarkably delineated terms. Once military operations in a disputed area are completed, domestic security agents, including local police and specialized religious police play an increasingly important role. The Islamic State has often used an explicit strategy of subjecting some local parties to extreme and public punishments to create fear within the broader population of resistance to the group’s control. This has led to intense insecurity for some groups, such as tribes that have opposed its authority, but has also supported the maintenance of domestic security under much of its territory. As a result, this has created security protections that have led to calm in consolidated territory. Sharia courts are also widely established in consolidated territory to create a semblance of the rule of law and to hear grievances that may not have been effectively resolved under local tribal or Iraqi national rule. Score: 6/10

#5 Providing Social Services

Capable states provide a wide range of social services in addition to security, including health care, education, sanitation, utilities and support for the vulnerable. Additionally, Islamic groups are historically known for their investment in social welfare provision in their societies. How does the Islamic State group do on social service provision? It is clear that the group has attempted to use a portion of its extensive resources to provide social services in the territory that it controls, although it has not always had the expertise to provide those services in an effective or lasting way. These social services generally come with a clear ideological orientation, particularly the religious and educational institutions that it establishes or transforms in newly acquired territory. Within its territory, the Islamic State focuses on a variety of mundane state-like behaviors, such as getting the utilities and sanitation systems up and running, building out infrastructure projects and distributing food supplies. Upon taking a populated area, it immediately seeks to control municipal facilities and services in an effort to demonstrate that it can be a more egalitarian provider of existing governmental services than the previous government. It provides more intensive oversight of these services than many of the populations had come to expect, sometimes winning support for its effectiveness in resource distribution. Food and humanitarian assistance have been particular focus areas for the group, although the Islamic State has not been able to reach all parts of the population and has actively discriminated against some groups. It also has mixed success when it comes to infrastructure management, as seen in the considerable public service-based grievances under its rule in Mosul. Score: 5/10

#6 Facilitating Economic Growth

Finally, capable states have institutions that effectively manage the economy and facilitate economic growth over the long run. This is done through the establishment and enforcement of property rights, through market creation and regulation, through targeted investment in capital-intensive industries and through the regulation of public goods, such as the environment. Because the Islamic State has been flush with cash that has allowed it to create its own economy and because oil resources have provided substantial economic rents to the organization to date, it is difficult to measure its success in this area. However, there are a number of early indications that its economic policies are neither productive nor sustainable in the long term. The group has demonstrated a tendency towards authoritarian control, which extends to the economy and often seems oblivious to the role of market forces. For example, it heavily subsidizes a variety of staples and services, works to control the management and distribution of wheat and flour (in Raqqa) and has often violated existing property rights, sometimes appropriating homes and infrastructure with little or no consideration to the existing owners. While some of these policies may be rational in times of crisis and war, they will hinder the prospects for economic growth and individual investment in the medium term. It has officially established a central bank, the Muslim Financial House, which may help to set economic direction, and it would not be too surprising if the Islamic State developed its own currency, given the penchant for centralized control. While the Islamic State has a budget that is the envy of many poor states, there is yet a long way to go before it runs its economy in the systematic manner of the majority of recognized states. Score: 3/10

When taken in comparison with established neighboring states, the Islamic State’s performance across a range of core state functions is decidedly mixed. When compared with other Islamist insurgent groups, or even to where the Islamic State group was with regard to these issues one year ago, however, progress towards development on many of these functions is nothing short of remarkable. And despite regular airstrikes and a wide host of enemies, the current trajectory on a number of these functions implies more state building in 2015, rather than less. Although airstrikes have killed hundreds of Islamic State fighters and some ground battles have led the group’s fighters to retreat from previously conquered territory, territory maintained by the Islamic State group has become increasingly consolidated through active state-building.

If the Islamic State continues to look more and more like a state, there are two primary implications. The first is that it will effectively remove any potential competitors to its governance model and ultimately become the only game in town. The competitors to its governance model include remaining institutions from the legacy Iraqi and Syrian states, tribal leaders and family groups and pre-existing religious or civil society social networks. As these potential competitors are eliminated, either through violence or through co-optation, the populations living under the rule of the Islamic State will adjust to the new rules. This will create institutional realities that become the norms of governance and lead to social habits through the way that institutions order everyday life. Because these institutions become embedded in the way that people live, work, and create order and meaning in their lives, they will not disappear easily. Despite their initial imposition by violence, they may even come to be preferred by many individuals over the uncertainties of rule by other “outside” forces, particularly Shiites or Kurds, who have poor reputations for their treatment of Sunni Arab areas. As this happens, less force and fear is required to maintain the institutions as time goes on.

The second main implication of this state-building project is that attempts to degrade or destroy the Islamic state in areas where it has consolidated control will unavoidably become attempts to degrade and destroy the institutions of governance. As the Islamic State becomes the only game in town when it comes to rule of law, market regulation and the provision of social services, attacks on its institutions will lead to the degradation or collapse of these institutions with the attendant negative consequences for the population. In other words, a strategy by international actors to destroy the Islamic State is not just the destruction of an unwanted and deeply distasteful militant group, but has the potential to create a state of anarchy that is deeply harmful to those who experience it. In a region awash with weaponry, as well as ethnic and sectarian divisions, institutions of the rule of law and domestic order – as heavy-handed and appalling as they may be – are critical to the welfare and survival of communities. A strategy that is based primarily on the destruction of these proto-state institutions, without a robust operation to build replacement state institutions, risks doing further lasting harm.

Opponents of the Islamic State are therefore caught in a difficult policy quandary, as it has become virtually impossible to eliminate the profoundly negative consequences of Islamic State rule without harming the remaining institutions necessary for the provision of basic human needs. When opponents of the Islamic State come to recognize that they will only be successful in eliminating the group by offering a more compelling model of governance (which should not be impossible to do, given the Islamic State’s mixed record), they may begin to reduce the remarkable influence of these violent state-builders.

Quinn Mecham is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of “Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization” (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). He is co-editor of “Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).