October 28, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Ordered Chaos: The Structure of The Islamic State

• For a group that feeds on chaos, The Islamic State (IS) itself is rigidly structured and organized

• The growing bureaucratic and administrative demands on IS as it attempts to govern the areas it controls—while under increasing military pressure—will stress the group and its structure like never before

• The group benefits from ruling over populations that have little experience in effective government services, meaning that the very conditions that helped fuel IS’s rise now give it wide latitude to deliver sub-par services for at least the near-term without risking revolt, at least for reasons of shoddy governance

• From the caliph-level down to the district level, the group has a repetitive three-office ruling structure that provides easy-to-understand lanes of responsibility and authority, which is vital for a growing organization whose sole membership requirement is belief in its cause.

It was never going to be easy running a self-proclaimed caliphate, transitioning from a terrorist insurgent group to a de facto government calling itself The Islamic State (IS).

Even without the dramatically increased airstrikes against the group, ruling over population centers in Syria and Iraq while tolerating zero dissent and harnessing sectarian strife for advantage is exceedingly difficult. After all, the preceding governments in both countries had failed utterly to do the very same, leading in part to the rise of IS. The group is helped by the way it has structured itself, with clear lines of responsibility that are mirrored from the highest level of the caliph to the smallest district.

For a group that feeds on collapse and chaos—indeed, that was born from it—IS is a rigidly structured organization. While the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might want a cult of personality, he is better served by the cult of bureaucracy he has built and put into practice over the last several years. That structure is now facing its greatest test, as the group for the first time tries to hold and govern areas while under increasing pressure at every level.

The group is organized around councils at the highest level—Provincial, Military, Security/Intelligence, Sharia (religious affairs), Financial, Media—and then replicated by individual officials representing these councils down to the lowest administrative function. From al-Baghdadi’s level, power is then shifted to the 18 provinces (Wilayat) that IS claims: Anbar; Baghdad; Diyala; Fallujah; al Janub (the South); Kirkuk; Nineveh, and Salahuddin in Iraq; and Aleppo; al Badiah (Homs); al Baraka (Hasaka); Damascus; Hama; Idlib; al Khair (Dir az Zur); al Raqqa, and al Sahal (Latakia) in Syria, with an additional province, al Furat (the Euphrates), spanning the border. Each provincial governor (wali) has his own commanders for sharia, military, and security, even though his day-to-day responsibilities will be more mundane, dealing with everyday civilian governance. This is repeated down to a sector level wali and then to the town level wali, again with his own three officers for sharia, military, and security assisting him. This makes the lanes of responsibility easy to understand, which is important for a group whose sole criteria for membership is belief in its cause.

Given the understandable dearth of reporting in the areas under IS rule, it is difficult to assess how IS is doing in terms of actually administrating through any means other than terror. One of the assumptions about the longevity of IS rule is that sooner rather than later the group will prove totally inept at governing and providing services, leading to increased frustration and opposition by the people under its control. While this is certainly possible, it might be too optimistic given not only the lack of credible alternatives but also the tragic fact that there hasn’t been effective governing and provision of services in these areas for a long time. Indeed, it was this lack of effective government (in terms of doing anything other than persecution and oppression) that helped fuel the rise of IS, first in Iraq and then in Syria after it imploded. It has sadly left a very low bar for IS to meet in terms of governance, and might give it more time than is assumed to meet the most minimal of expectations.

It remains to be seen how the group’s structure responds to the increasing pressure of fighting on so many fronts against so many opponents, even if no single opponent is strong enough to defeat it. The hybridization of the group’s senior leadership—blending Ba’athist military order with takfiri ideology to create a clear organizational chart—might provide it with the resiliency needed as stress strikes at every level of the group, from town to caliph.


Read The Soufan Group's special report on The Islamic State here.


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