How ISIS is Building Its State:
Behind ‘Death Cult’ Image Lies a Methodical Bureaucracy
By Shiv Malik
December 8, 2015
A leaked internal Islamic
State manual shows how the terrorist group has set about building a state in
Iraq and Syria complete with government departments, a treasury and an economic
programme for self-sufficiency, the Guardian can reveal.
The 24-page document, obtained by
the Guardian, sets out a blueprint for establishing foreign relations, a fully
fledged propaganda operation, and centralised control over oil, gas and the
other vital parts of the economy.
From control of oil and land to
rules governing leisure, internal memos seen by the Guardian show how deliberate
Isis’s state-building exercise has been
The manual, written last year and
entitled Principles in the administration of the Islamic State, lays bare
Isis’s state-building aspirations and the ways in which it has managed to set
itself apart as the richest and most destabilising jihadi group of the past 50
Together with other documents
obtained by the Guardian, it builds up a picture of a group that, although sworn
to a founding principle of brutal violence, is equally set on more mundane
matters such as health, education, commerce, communications and jobs. In short,
it is building a state.
As western aircraft step up their
aerial war on Isis targets in Syria,
the implication is that the military task is not simply one of battlefield
arithmetic. Isis is already far more than the sum of its fighters.
The document – written as a
foundation text to train “cadres of administrators” in the months after
Isis’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a “caliphate” in Iraq
and Syria on 28 June 2014 – sketches out how to organise government
departments including education, natural resources, industry, foreign relations,
public relations and military camps.
Dated some time between July and
October 2014, it details how Isis will build separate training camps for regular
troops and veteran fighters. Veterans, it says, should go on a fortnight’s
refresher course each year to receive instruction in the “latest arts of using
weapons, military planning and military technologies”.
It says they will also be given a
“detailed commentary on the technologies” of the enemy and “how the
soldiers of the state can take advantage of them.”
The document reveals for the first
time that Isis always intended to train children in the arts of war. Isis
propaganda from this year has clearly shown children being drilled, and even
made to shoot captives.
But the text, authored by an
Egyptian called Abu Abdullah, is explicit about the intention to do so from mid-
to late 2014. Children, it says, will be receive “training on bearing light
arms” and “outstanding individuals” will be “selected from them for
security portfolio assignments, including checkpoints, patrols”.
The text highlights the need for
Isis to achieve a unified culture encompassing foreigners and natives and sets
out the need for self-sufficiency by establishing its own independent
“factories for local military and food production” and creating “isolated
safe zones” for providing for local needs.
The document came from a
businessman working within Isis via the academic researcher Aymenn
al-Tamimi, who has worked over the past year to compile the most thorough
log of Isis documents available to the public.
For safety reasons, the Guardian
cannot reveal further information about the businessman but he has leaked nearly
30 documents in all, including a financial statement from one of Isis’s
Isis has suffered military
setbacks in recent weeks, and some Sunni Arabs from Raqqa have indicated that
its statecraft might be better on paper than it is in practice.
But Tamimi said the playbook,
along with a further 300 Isis documents he has obtained over the past year,
showed that building a viable country rooted in fundamentalist theology was the
central aim. “[Isis] is a project that strives to govern. It’s not just a
case of their sole end being endless battle.”
(Gen Stanley McChrystal (retired),
who led the military units that helped destroy Isis’s predecessor organisation
(ISI) in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, said: “If it is indeed genuine, it is
fascinating and should be read by everyone – particularly policymakers in the
“If the west sees Isis as an
almost stereotypical band of psychopathic killers, we risk dramatically
“In the Principles in the
administration of the Islamic State, you see a focus on education (really
indoctrination) beginning with children but progressing through their ranks, a
recognition that effective governance is essential, thoughts on their use of
technology to master information (propaganda), and a willingness to learn from
the mistakes of earlier movements.
“It’s not a big departure from
the works of Mao, the practices of the Viet Minh in Indochina, or other
movements for whom high-profile actions were really just the tip of a far more
nuanced iceberg of organising activity.
Charlie Winter, a senior
researcher for Georgia State University who has seen the document, said it
demonstrated Isis’s high capacity for premeditation.
“Far from being an army of
irrational, bloodthirsty fanatics, IS [Isis] is a deeply calculating political
organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind
Lt Gen Graeme Lamb, former head of
UK special forces, said the playbook carried a warning for current military
Referring to sections of the
statecraft text in which Isis repeatedly claims it is the only true
representatives of Sunni Arab Muslims in the region, Lamb said it was all the
more important to ensure wider Sunni leadership in the fight with Isis, or risk
“fuelling this monster”.
“Seeing Daesh [Isis] and the
caliphate as simply a target to be systematically broken by forces other than
Middle Eastern Sunnis … is to fail to understand this fight.
“It must be led by the Sunni
Arab leadership and its many tribes across the region, with us in the west and
the other religious factions in the Middle East acting in support.
“It is not currently how we are
shaping the present counter-Isis campaign, thereby setting ourselves up for