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What the Islamic State got right — and very wrong

Daesh militants wave their flag [REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo]
Daesh militants wave their flag [REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo]

Ignore the theological failings of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi for a moment, and the enormous degree of violence and bigotry that his group practiced. It is time to give the Islamic State some credit. It kept its short-lived “caliphate” spotless. So clean, in fact, that residents in Mosul are reportedly imploring the newly reinstated Iraqi local government to provide the same standard of public services.

It turns out that the streets, swept by the same road-cleaners and with rubbish lifted by the same refuse collectors, had been kept remarkably clean under Islamic State’s rule. The reason was simple: the Daesh-run pseudo-government would threaten the existing employees of Mosul’s city administration if they did not turn up for work and perform their duties to their utmost abilities. The threats included prison, or worse. In contrast, working for the conventional Iraqi state had less demanding requirements, for the exact same jobs. Now that the militants have left, the streets have become dirty again, and the rubbish is piling up.

In an extraordinary piece of journalism, New York Times journalists have been scouring the offices used by Islamic State, now retaken by Iraqi bureaucrats. Using documents recovered therein, they have pieced together a picture of Mosul under Daesh. The group was remarkably efficient, not just at dealing out violence, but also at providing mundane public services, like waste disposal.

This can partly be explained by another incredible piece of journalism, an investigation by Der Spiegel back in April 2015. That illustrated how the bureaucratic structure of Islamic State had actually been designed by Baathists, notably a former colonel in Iraqi intelligence, Samir Abd Muhammad Al-Khlifawi.

Read: Islamic State militants renew loyalty pledge to ‘caliph’ Baghdadi

Known simply as Haji Bakr, he put Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi into power and taught him how to create and run a security state like Saddam Hussein’s. He was, behind the scenes, manipulating the Islamic State into taking territory in Syria, which could then be used as a launch-pad to reinvade Iraq, and take back for the Baathists what the Anglo-American invasion in 2003 had denied them. Bakr wanted Islamic State to have a “religious face”, but it appears that he was not particularly religious himself. To help Al-Baghdadi, Bakr and his former Baathist intelligence colleagues drew up organisational charts, operating procedures and all the bureaucracy required to create a state where anyone could be tracked down and taken into custody at any time.

The New York Times also revealed that the reliance on oil that was so obsessed over by Western journalists was largely a fiction, as I first suggested back in 2014. Instead, traditional taxation — a euphemism for extortion — and universal confiscation of Shia, Christian, Nusayria and Yazidi property flowed into the mad militants’ hands. They began selling off this property, at inflated prices, to provide “seed capital” for the caliphate. It wasn’t just land and buildings. The NYT found that an entire new ministry had been set up to “collect and reallocate beds, tables, bookshelves — even the forks the militants took from the houses they seized. They called it the Ministry of War Spoils.”

ISIS, a trojan horse made by the US - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

ISIS, a trojan horse made by the US –
Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

From the Taliban in Afghanistan; to Al Qaeda emirates in Yemen or Mali; to Daesh in Iraq and Syria, this is the ultimate goal of extreme jihadists. They want to run a state that is focused on destroying non-Sunni minorities, and enhancing the lives and well-being of Sunnis to the point that secular government appears drastically inferior.

Of course, the “spoils of war” never made it much beyond the hands of Sunni Daesh militants into the hands of ordinary Sunni “citizens”. Like all totalitarian states – notably Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the administration excelled at providing for its own material needs first, and what was left over – usually remarkably little – made it into the hands of the general populace.

Complaining about this resulted in problems, not least that you might be executed in public; crucified, thrown from a building or set on fire, for example. Such threats, predictably, discouraged civil disobedience.

Although good at street sanitation and record-keeping, foreign and defence policy were not Islamic State’s strong points. Its existence galvanised Sunni nation states against them, and a sense of self-righteousness meant that the leadership never took steps to redress this. Compare this with the Taliban in the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, who secured official recognition and millions in aid from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan almost immediately. Even in opposition, the Taliban are reaching out to unexpected allies, notably Russia.

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — Daesh — had a correspondingly appalling defence policy. Basically, its propaganda units baited the entire world into destroying the state, and the same enemies then came and did exactly what was asked of them. The Islamic State, at least in Iraq and soon in Syria, no longer exists because of the arrogance of its leaders. The first duty of a real state, not their bloodied caricature of one, is to protect – not exterminate — its own citizens. Despite the clean streets, the Islamic “State” failed spectacularly in that respect.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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