From State Builder to Terror Group on the Run

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

“ISIS has now adopted a survival strategy,” journal contributor argues in an interview. 

Despite its early success in state building, ISIS has responded to its dramatic loss of territory and recent assassinations of its top leaders by focusing on tactics like killings and kidnappings to bolster the morale of its members and cling to its remaining areas of operation, an expert tells Middle East Policy

“While the frequency of its terrorist operations has decreased…the group maintains a presence in remote enclaves that are challenging to access and move through,” argues Samer Bakkour, an assistant professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the University of Exeter. “This strategy aims to hinder military units from reaching its strongholds, taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the forces and militias in Syria and Iraq.” 

Adding to the stakes, The Washington Post reported on June 2 that Iran is planning to use a network to militants to attack American forces in Syria. Those troops, numbering about 900, work with Kurdish fighters to contain ISIS in the northeast of the war-torn country. 

Recent killings of high-level ISIS members by countries such as the United States and Turkey have raised questions about the extremist group’s viability and status in Syria, where it once controlled tens of thousands of square miles and governed over millions of people.  

As opposed to its past reliance on brute force, Bakkour told Middle East Policy in an email interview, “ISIS has now adopted a survival strategy.” 

This shift entails mine-laying and the planting of explosive devices, as well as “kidnappings or killings to demonstrate its existence and boost the morale of its small number of fighters,” Bakkour said. Though suffering from a shortage of personnel, these actions “serve to convey messages related to mobilization and security, highlighting its capacity to sustain sporadic operations.” 

The deaths of two top ISIS leaders, Khalid Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri and Abu Hussein al-Qurashi, in less than a month adds to the growing list of officials killed in the past few years, further weakening the organization. It has lost more than 90 percent of the territory it held at its peak less than a decade ago. 

In an article just published in Middle East Policy—which is open-access and free for all readers, even those without a subscription—Bakkour and coauthor Gareth Stansfield evaluate four dimensions of the Islamic State’s governance, its successes, and the weaknesses that undermined the effort. The stabilization of society, extraction of income, politicization of religion, and use of sectarian divisions were key components of ISIS’s governance over its territory, but all were plagued by internal contradictions that ultimately contributed to the state’s collapse. 

Despite the loss of “much of its territorial control, resources, and capacity to function as a state actor,” Bakkour asserted in the interview, the group “remains an armed force that is far from inactive.” 

Indeed, the United States still views ISIS as a notable threat in the region, evidenced by US Central Command’s reporting of dozens of operations against the group in April. Bakkour noted that US strategy has also evolved, moving away from direct confrontation and toward “guidance, assistance, and empowerment [of local forces], particularly in refugee camps housing thousands of ISIS members.”  

Bakkour argued that the continued offensive against ISIS will see the group continue to evolve. The loss of so many leaders in recent years will make local branches “more independent in decision-making, recruit leaders from its own territory, and devise combat plans based on local dynamics rather than global jihadism” as the group seeks survival over domination.  

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Bakkour and Stansfield’s Middle East Policy article: 

  • There were four major dimensions of ISIS’s attempt at state building: the stabilization of society; the extraction of income; the politicization of religion; and the use of sectarian divisions. 

  • ISIS established three of the crucial prerequisites for statehood (territory, an established population, and a political authority), but failed to sustain key functions of governance. 

  • In assessing the group’s stabilization of society, key considerations are: 

    • State fragility in Syria was already evident prior to the civil war. 

    • State failure opens the door for nonstate actors to assert authority. 

    • ISIS built its control on public dissatisfaction with the Syrian government and its own ability to provide security and stability using force. 

  • In assessing the group’s income extraction key considerations are: 

    • ISIS developed a “self-sustaining financial model based on the spoils of war, the administration of natural resources, and various taxes” and its rapid rise was boosted by the extraction of capital from captured territory. 

    • Oil was the main financial driver, but the sustainability of the group’s oil industry was fundamentally unsound. 

    • Taxation and property confiscation, including looting, amounted to about half of ISIS’s revenue. 

    • None of its methods of income generation were sustainable in the long run. 

  • In assessing the group’s politicization of Islam, key considerations are: 

    • Without a homogenous population, ISIS sought to derive its legitimacy from its support for extremist Sunni militants, presenting itself as the “representative of authentic Islam” and rejected other religions and sects. 

    • The group enforced a strict regime based on its extreme interpretation of the Quran, selectively drawing on teachings to establish its ideology. 

  • In assessing the group’s sectarian divisions, key considerations are: 

    • Regime violence was the main catalyst of ISI’s (Islamic State in Iraq) expansion into Syria from Iraq in the first half of the 2010s. 

    • Bashar al-Assad exploited the group’s emergence as an opportunity to split the opposition in the Syrian civil war by promoting sectarianism; this led to a breaking apart of ISI and the new group ISIS focused on fighting other opposition groups instead of the Syrian regime. 

  • Each of these areas was undermined by weaknesses inherent in the system ISIS built: 

    • The failure to adjust governing practices to local contexts. 

    • Political authority cannot be sustained through force, on which the group over relied. 

    • The failure to develop sustainable income sources. 

    • Deliberate efforts to instill sectarian divisions undermined any sense of national unity.  

You can read Samer Bakkour and Gareth Stansfield’s article, “The Significance of ISIS’s State Building in Syria” in Middle East Policy. The article is open-access and free for all readers, regardless of whether they have a subscription to the journal. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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