The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (IS) emerged from the swamp of the Syrian civil war in spring 2013. The clue was always in the name. Al-Qaeda’s aim had been to build a terror organisation powerful enough to take the battle to its Western enemies. IS saw its mission as more religiously purist and constructive—to improve the piety of Sunni Muslims and build a government around them.
Like any primitive state, it began by taking a monopoly on violence and coercion. For impoverished Sunni Muslims who were sick of the ruthlessness of the Syrian regime and the money-grubbing corruption of the rebels, it wasn’t entirely unpopular. The revenge cult of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, had thrived amid the chaos, but the appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham spoke of something new—a pressing demand for the re-establishment of order. To some ordinary Sunni Muslims who simply wanted to live their lives, having the Islamic State lay down the law didn’t seem like a bad bet. “Even if their system is bad,” an opposition activist from Homs called Hamza Sattouf told me, “the fact that they have one is good.”
We failed to understand the Islamic State until it was too late. The old saw that IS was a Saudi-sponsored, Wahhabi proxy—a leftist trope dating from the 1980s—was always wide of the mark. The neo-conservative contribution, that IS was a cunning false flag engineered by the Assad regime, was even more risible. It was repeated by witless think-tankers in London, New York and Doha, almost all of whom have never been to Syria since the uprising and who get their information from Skype and Twitter.
Yet Islamic State was one of the few militias that didn’t appear to be a wholly owned rebel proxy—one reason, as I show in my book Hunting Season, why military assaults and campaigns of targeted assassination by those same proxies backfired at every turn, turning real rebels into mercenaries and almost always fueling its rise.
But if we underestimated IS in the beginning, we’re overestimating it now. In Syria, IS built on the extortion and kidnapping rackets that it had kept its predecessor groups afloat in Iraq in the previous decade; the plan was that kidnapping, along with the selling of oil from areas it controlled, would underpin a vast, legitimate taxable economy in Syria. But that plan isn’t working.
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The idea that the Islamic State was the world’s “richest terror franchise,” taking $3m a day from oil revenues, was, like much of the information coming out of northern Syria, plucked from thin air by “experts” whom I wouldn’t trust to walk my dog. Such is the fog of lurid propaganda about IS that, in a recent conversation with one Italian reporter and IS-watcher, he sighed and seemed momentarily lost for words. “The only thing I trust coming out of the Islamic State comes from its own propaganda,” he finally said.
In October, the British Iraqi researcher Aymenn Tamimi translated several of IS’s leaked internal reports. These showed that, in the province of Deir ez-Zor in Eastern Syria, the bulk of which has formed part of IS territory for over a year, its oil revenues were close to zero. In that province, 44.7 per cent of its income came from “confiscations,” and only 23.7 per cent from taxation. In other words, even in one of its biggest provinces, over two fifths of the income accruing to IS came from theft and extortion, methods a functioning modern state ought to have left behind.
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On a visa to regime-held Aleppo in the summer I visited Sheikh Najjar, an industrial suburb won back by the Syrian army from IS a year before—and which is still under daily attack. On the side of one building I passed a sign that read, in Arabic: “the services department of the Islamic State.” The factory manager accompanying me rolled his eyes. “We built all this; they just changed the name and called it Islamic State.” Elsewhere in Aleppo, in one of the scripted propaganda videos the British journalist John Cantlie was forced to make while being held hostage, he points the audience to the “Islamic State’s fire brigade” in the background as they struggle to deal with a regime bombing. But those men are wearing the khaki overalls which are the hallmark of the White Helmets, an internationally sponsored civil defence outfit working in rebel areas of northern Syria.
Then, heavily touted in a recent issue of its in-house magazine Dabiq, there was the minting of IS’s own gold currency. “Pure hype,” Tamimi told me. Evidence from the organisation’s own videos in Aleppo shows that Syrian pounds, and not IS gold, remain the currency in daily use.
Talking heads are fond of saying that organisations like al-Qaeda and IS are “essentially modern,” but this a breathtakingly banal observation. Yes, IS militants wear Adidas, rave about Nutella and spend much of their free time on YouTube. Yet that does not mean they have the ability to build a modern state. Dabiq keeps calling for “military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specialisations and fields.” Thus far, much of what it’s been getting has been dead weight—unskilled, disaffected Englishmen and their families, who might come in handy for being photographed with a Kalashnikov, but not for much else.
IS is already faltering, at least in part because of the degradation of its infrastructure by bombing raids from the western-led coalition and from Russia. But it will eventually fail not because of external military force but simply because it is a medieval state in modern garb.
IS only offers citizenship to Sunni Muslims; everyone else is a fund-raiser. That is part of the point; it is determined to drive a wedge between Sunni Muslims and everyone else. But much as it likes to present itself as administrators of a new state, its balance sheet reveals the sorry truth. “I tell you we were bedazzled,” one of its Raqqa-based British recruits Kabir Ahmed told me by telephone in June 2014. “We knew that Allah will give us victory, that he will provide. But we didn’t know it would be in the form of oil and war booty.” Five months later he was announced dead in Northern Iraq, the first British suicide bomber for IS.
In the aftermath of the coalition bombing raids, IS liked to claim that it was “Remaining and Expanding.” Yet its often suicidal determination to go looking for trouble may turn out to be its undoing. From its advance into Kurdish areas of Northern Syria, to its assault on Yazidi regions of Northern Iraq and its lighting strike on the archaeological city of Palmyra, IS’s stealth raids are sometimes seen as puzzling from a military perspective. Why bring down the wrath of the entire civilized world?
Much the same applies to its alleged attack on the Russian airliner in Sinai, and to the massacres in Paris. Al-Qaeda became a largely decentralised “lone-wolf” franchise after it was expelled from its base in Afghanistan. In contrast, the most chilling thing about IS is its aspiration to hierarchical control; the operation in Paris appears, at some level, to have been given the nod by its leadership in Syria. To some extent, its motives are entirely rational. After a degree of bluster and a flurry of air-strikes following the killing of its pilot by IS in February, the Jordanian Air Force has now, along with many other Arab countries, largely quit the fight against IS in Syria. Perhaps IS is hoping that President Hollande’s promise to “crush” it will be more of the same.
But IS’s determination to keep attacking and provoking everyone also stems from its own weakness. The only way it can avoid charging crippling taxes on its own citizens and make up the shortfall is to steal from others. Likewise, to keep its veneer of statehood at a high polish, these masked Vikings are forced to keep looking for new countries to terrorise.