From Electricity to Sewage, U.S. Intelligence Says the Islamic State Is Fast Learning How to Run a Country
- By Yochi Dreazen
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.
The Obama administration’s escalating air war against the Islamic State is running up against a dispiriting new reality: The militants are becoming as good at governing territory as they are at conquering it, making it considerably harder to dislodge them from the broad swaths of Syria and Iraq that they now control.
U.S. intelligence officials say the leaders of the Islamic State are adopting methods first pioneered by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia, and are devoting considerable human and financial resources toward keeping essential services like electricity, water, and sewage functioning in their territory. In some areas, they even operate post offices.
The militants have built new court systems to enforce their harsh interpretation of sharia law, which punishes thieves by amputating their hands and has sentenced numerous Christians and other religious minorities to death because of their beliefs, the officials added.
At the same time, the Islamic State has generally allowed the local bureaucrats in charge of hospitals, law enforcement, trash pickup, and other municipal services to stay in their jobs, according to intelligence officials. In some areas, sitting mayors and other top local officeholders are keeping their posts.
Taken together, the moves highlight the fact that the Islamic State, already the best-armed and best-funded terror group in the world, is quickly adapting to the challenges of ruling and governing. That, in turn, dramatically reduces the chances that the extremists will face homegrown opposition in what amounts to the world’s newest territory.
"ISIS is the most dangerous terrorist group in the world because they combine the fighting capabilities of al Qaeda with the administrative capabilities of Hezbollah," said David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who spent several years working as a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus during the height of the Iraq War. "It’s clear that they have a state-building agenda and an understanding of the importance of effective governance."
In some areas under their control, the Islamic State is opening hospitals, building new roads, launching bus services, rehabilitating schools (at least for boys), and launching small-business programs designed to juice the local economies. In Syria, where bread is a core staple, the militants focus on managing local wheat mills and bakeries to ensure that supplies remain high enough to feed a population that was in some areas on the edge of starvation.
The group’s focus on good governance, at least by militant standards, starts at the top. In his first public comments after conquering Mosul, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, called on "scientists, scholars, preachers, judges, doctors, engineers and people with military and administrative expertise" to help govern the land his group controls. Those weren’t just words: Shortly after taking control of Mosul, Baghdadi transferred the Islamic State’s hospital administrator for the Syrian city of Raqqa to Mosul to take that same job there, Kilcullen said.
In Raqqa, which has been under Islamic State control for months, traffic police remain on the streets and local citizens pay taxes to the militants, who in turn give them receipts stamped with the group’s logo. A local goldsmith told the New York Times that the taxes are far cheaper than the bribes residents had to pay when Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was in control. "I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs," the goldsmith said.
The Islamic State also launched a "hearts-and-minds" campaign of sorts. In one of the more jarring examples, the group held a "fun day" in Mosul where the militants passed out soccer balls and held Quran memorization and recitation contests. The Islamic State, Kilcullen said, "is thinking like a state."