By: Mariam Karouny
In the cities and towns across the desert plains of northeast Syria, the ultra-hardline Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), famous for its beheadings, crucifixions and mass executions, provides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic, and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques.
While its merciless battlefield tactics and its imposition of its austere vision of Islamic law have won the group headlines, residents say much of its power lies in its efficient and often deeply pragmatic ability to govern.
Syria’s eastern province of Raqqa illustrates this best. Members hold it up as an example of life under the Islamic “caliphate” they hope will one day stretch from China to Europe.
In the provincial capital, a dust-blown city that was home to about a quarter of a million people before Syria’s three-year-old war began, the group leaves almost no institution or public service outside of its control.
“Let us be honest, they are doing massive institutional work. It is impressive,” one activist from Raqqa, who now lives in Turkey, said.
Residents, ISIS fighters and even opponents described how it had built up a structure similar to a modern government in less than a year under its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The group’s progress has alarmed regional and Western powers. But ISIS has embedded itself so thoroughly into the fabric of life in places like Raqqa that it will be all but impossible for US aircraft — let alone Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish troops — to uproot them through force alone.
Last year, Raqqa became the first city to fall to the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. They called it the “Bride of the Revolution”. Within a year, ISIS clawed its way into control, mercilessly eliminating rival insurgents. But after the initial crackdown, the group began setting up services and institutions, stating clearly that it intended to stay and use the area as a base.
“We are a state,” one emir, or commander, in the province said. “Things are great here because we are ruling based on God’s law.”
“The civilians who do not have any political affiliations have adjusted to the presence of ISIS, because people got tired and exhausted,” a Raqqa resident opposed to ISIS said. Since then, the group “has restored and restructured all the institutions that are related to services”, including a consumer protection office and the civil judiciary, the resident said.
The group’s use of violence too has not been entirely indiscriminate. The group has often traded with businessmen loyal to Assad when it has suited its interests, for instance.
According to one fighter, a former Assad employee is now in charge of mills and distributing flour to bakeries in Raqqa. Employees at the Raqqa dam, which provides the city with electricity and water, have remained in their posts. ISIS’s willingness to use former Assad employees displays a pragmatism vital to its success holding onto territory it has captured.
They have been helped by experts who have come from other countries, including in Europe. The man Baghdadi appointed to run and develop Raqqa’s telecoms, for instance, is a Tunisian with a PhD in the subject.
Reflecting ISIS’s assertion that it is a government — rather than simply a militant group that happens to govern — Baghdadi has also separated military operations from civilian administration, assigning fighters only as police and soldiers.
Instead, Baghdadi has appointed civilian deputies called walis, an Islamic term describing an official similar to a minister, to manage institutions and develop their sectors.
Administrative regions are divided into waliyehs, or provinces, which sometimes align with existing divisions but, as with the case of the recently established al-Furat province, can span national boundaries.
Fighters and employees receive a salary from a department called the Muslim Financial House, which is something like a finance ministry and a bank that aims to reduce poverty.
Fighters receive housing — including in homes confiscated from local non-Sunnis or from government employees who fled the area — as well as about $400 to $600 per month, enough to pay for a basic lifestyle in Syria’s poor northeast.
One fighter said poor families were given money. A widow may receive $100 for herself and for each child she has, he said.
Prices are also kept low. Traders who manipulate prices are punished, warned and shut down if they are caught again.
The group has also imposed Islamic taxes on wealthy traders and families. “We are only implementing Islam, zakat is an Islamic tax imposed by God,” said a jihadi in Raqqa.
Analysts estimate that ISIS also raises tens of millions of dollars by selling oil from the fields it controls in Syria and Iraq to Turkish and Iraqi businessmen and by collecting ransoms for hostages it has taken.
At the heart of the ISIS system is its leader, Baghdadi, who in June declared himself “caliph” after breaking with al-Qaeda.
Residents, fighters and activists agree Baghdadi is now heavily involved in Raqqa’s administration, and has the final word on all decisions made by commanders and officials. Even the prices set for local goods go back to him, local sources say.
Residents say Baghdadi also approves beheadings and other executions and punishments for criminals convicted by the group’s Islamic courts.
“He does not leave the brothers. In the battle to retake Division 17, he was also slightly wounded but he is fine now. He does not stay in one place. He moves between Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Mosul. He leads the battles.”