The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Iraqi crackdown on the Islamic State may actually increase support for the Islamic State

A man, blindfolded and handcuffed, kneels on the ground between two members of the Iraqi security forces after being accused of having links to the Islamic State group and being detained, on Nov. 8. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)

Last month, President Trump claimed the defeat of the Islamic State as justification for his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. In 2014, at the height of its reign, the Sunni insurgent group governed an estimated 10 million people and 34,000 square miles of territory.

The Islamic State no longer controls significant territory in Iraq and Syria. But during a visit to Baghdad in December, the question being asked by Iraqi government officials was not if the Islamic State is making a comeback, but how soon the group will again be strong enough to recapture and hold territory.

How the Iraqi government is fueling anger

In Iraq, the government’s harsh counterterrorism strategy, which is widely perceived as collectively punishing the Sunnis, is generating new grievances that could increase local support for an Islamic State 2.0. More than 19,000 people have been detained on terrorism-related charges since 2014. Over 3,000 have been sentenced to death in rapid-fire trials that are sometimes decided in less than 10 minutes. Convictions are often based on thin and circumstantial evidence, the testimony of secret informants, or confessions induced through torture, making it easy for innocent people to be falsely accused and unfairly punished.

These injustices are fueling anger, and with it, a new wave of violence. Since 2016, the average number of Islamic State attacks in Iraq — including suicide bombings and targeted assassinations — has risen to 75 per month. In August, U.S. and U.N. reports estimated that the number of Islamic State fighters active in Iraq and Syria might exceed 30,000.

In our working paper based on an original household survey of over 1,400 Mosul residents — the Islamic State’s former de facto capital in Iraq — we identify two serious flaws in the government’s approach to prosecuting and punishing individuals accused of joining or supporting the Islamic State. First, it is unwilling to recognize variation in the severity and voluntariness of “collaboration.” Second, it relies heavily on unproven criminal justice and counterterrorism theories.

What counts as ‘collaborating’ with the Islamic State?

When the Islamic State retreated from Mosul and other Iraqi cities in 2017, it left behind millions of people who are widely feared and stigmatized as a result of their exposure to the group. There is a widespread assumption in Iraq that simply living in the Islamic State-controlled territory was an act of support for terrorism.

In attempting to deliver justice to the victims of the Islamic State’s atrocities, authorities take a harsh approach — and fail to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary collaboration or more serious crimes and lesser offenses. Iraq’s anti-terrorism law criminalizes membership in a terrorist group without requiring proof of a specific criminal act. Anyone with a plausible connection to the Islamic State including family members and unarmed civilian employees can be sentenced to life in prison, the minimum punishment allowed by the law.

As one Iraqi judge said, “[The Islamic State]’s ideology is so dangerous that we cannot afford to show any leniency.” Yet, many of the Islamic State’s civilian employees, such as teachers, physicians and farmers, were working for the Islamic State’s bureaucracy against their will because quitting would have exposed them and their families to economic hardship, at a minimum, and potentially to the death penalty.

Iraqis view some types of ‘collaboration’ as more voluntary than others

In contrast with the government’s one-punishment-fits-all approach to the Islamic State collaborators, the Iraqis we surveyed distinguish between different types of collaborators and prefer more lenient punishments — or no punishment at all — for some. The vast majority of respondents (92 percent) consider paying taxes to the Islamic State to be an involuntary act, which is unsurprising given that the Islamic State imposed mandatory taxes and harshly punished tax evasion. Almost all respondents (97 percent) see fighting for the Islamic State to be a voluntary act.

A smaller percentage (29 percent) perceive working as a janitor for the Islamic State’s department of municipal services to be involuntary. Iraqis recognize that some “collaborators” were coerced into cooperating with or working for the Islamic State against their will and deserve leniency.

Do harsher punishments help to reintegrate communities?

The Iraqi government’s strategy focuses on deterrence-based theories of criminal justice and counterterrorism. Such theories are based on an unproven assumption that the harsher the punishment, the less possible the risk of recidivism. Social scientists are increasingly questioning the soundness of these theories.

Our survey results indicate that more lenient and restorative punishments than the  legal framework allows — such as community service — can help facilitate the reintegration of perceived the Islamic State “collaborators” into their neighborhoods. For example, in the case of a hypothetical wife of an Islamic State fighter, 27 percent of respondents would allow her reintegration into the community without any punishment — even though Iraqi courts routinely sentence wives of the Islamic State fighters to life in prison.

In our experiment, imposing harsher punishments of years in prison does not significantly increase the willingness of respondents to accept her as a neighbor. In general, our research finds that harsher punishments do not improve the prospects for peaceful reconciliation with former Islamic State collaborators.

These findings have important policy implications. Our research demonstrates that Iraqis distinguish between the culpability of different types of collaborators and prefer different punishments for them, suggesting that the Iraqi government’s approach to the Islamic State collaborators is inconsistent with public opinion.

Failure to prioritize the prosecution of more serious crimes over lesser offenses can increase the likelihood that innocent people will be convicted while the guilty escape justice. There is a need for legislative reforms and an inclusive national dialogue about how best to balance demands for accountability with the need for reconciliation in Iraq.

Bottom-up approaches to peace-building are shown to be more durable and successful. Our study provides important insights into what ordinary Iraqis view as necessary conditions for reintegration of the tens of thousands of perceived the Islamic State collaborators in their country. Our experimental design offers policymakers an important tool for community-driven reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict.

Mara Revkin is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University based in Iraq. Kristen Kao is a postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Governance and Local Development at the University of Gothenburg. This article is based on their working paper entitled, “To Punish or to Pardon? Reintegrating Rebel Collaborators After Conflict in Iraq.”