The Failed Islamic States Index

Why jihadis stink at governing.


On June 29, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham rebranded itself as simply the Islamic State and proclaimed that it was the legitimate government of the swath of Iraq and Syria it has seized, beginning with its capture of Fallujah eight months ago and rapidly expanding, most recently to Christian-majority towns in Iraq’s northwest. Not to be outdone, the Nusra Front, the Islamic State’s al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rival, declared in July that it was establishing its own state, which the group called an Islamic emirate.

Some analysts have likened the Islamic State to a "new Taliban," which attempted to establish hard-line Islamist governance in Afghanistan. But one need not reach back to the 1990s for examples of jihadist states: Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Mali have made similar attempts much more recently.

In 2011 and 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a coalition of North African jihadists exploited crises of governance to establish their own short-lived emirates. Both alienated their populations before collapsing under government counteroffensives. As the Islamic State has gone about consolidating its control — eliminating Sunni rivals, destroying cultural artifacts, and enforcing extremist interpretations of sharia rule — the similarities have become even more apparent. But it is also apparent that the Islamic State has learned little from recent history and appears doomed to make the same mistakes as its intellectual brethren in North Africa and Yemen.

In 2010, as AQAP gathered strength in the hills of Yemen, Osama bin Laden cautioned the group not to let their ambitions exceed their abilities. "Jihad as a means to bring down countries and to gain control of them does not require beginning such a plan based on the hope that people will fight to establish a nascent state," he wrote in a letter found at his Abbottabad compound almost a year later. "Instead, it requires close study and inspection and confirmation that the elements necessary to success are in place…. We are not yet ready to cover the people with the umbrella of Islamic rule." Without the resources to provide a better alternative to the government in Sanaa, including government services and infrastructure, bin Laden warned, the same grievances Yemenis had against the government would be directed at AQAP. "We cannot provide for these needs in light of the battle and siege of the whole world against us," he wrote.

It’s unclear if the letter reached Yemen, but if it did, AQAP didn’t heed bin Laden’s advice. In April 2011, with the Yemeni government focused on the popular uprising that in time would unseat the country’s president, AQAP and its popular front organization, Ansar al-Sharia, seized the town of Jaar, in Yemen’s southern Abyan governorate, which they declared the "emirate of Waqar." On May 27, 2011, just weeks after bin Laden’s death, AQAP launched an assault on the neighboring city of Zinjibar. Yemeni soldiers fled from a military base, leaving behind U.S.-purchased weapons and equipment. Soldiers at another base in the city refused to counterattack. Months later, a lieutenant who fled told the Guardian he took off his uniform and left because the crisis had divided the military: "[T]he army leadership is rotten and corrupt. Why would a soldier fight if the army is split in Sana’a?" With the only remaining soldiers in the city besieged, "stringy-haired fighters quickly secured the governor’s palace across town, raising al-Qaeda’s black flag over the white stone buildings," Gregory Johnsen wrote in his history of AQAP, The Last Refuge. AQAP fighters also seized the nearby city of Azzan. They consolidated their power, naming each of the three cities an emirate, together constituting what they claimed was AQAP’s sovereign state.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis escaped the AQAP-held cities and fled to Aden. AQAP tried to institute a "hearts and minds campaign" to win over the remaining residents: taxes were abolished, new electric and sewage infrastructure was erected, free water was distributed. AQAP recruited foot soldiers from the local population and paid them handsome salaries. But to fund their charity work, AQAP raided banks and government offices for funds and ran protection rackets. They instituted sharia law, amputating the hands of thieves and publicly crucifying a man accused of homosexuality. Indoctrination centers were set up and if residents resisted AQAP’s brand of Salafism, officials would "lock them somewhere quiet and give them reading material until they realize how wrong they were," an AQAP representative told the Guardian. AQAP consolidated power in their own hands, taking authority away from local tribal leaders who at first seemed to support AQAP’s infrastructure and development projects. But as the brutality of AQAP governance became evident, those tribal leaders rallied against the Islamic radicals and established Yemeni government-funded militias called "popular committees" to resist the emirate’s growth.

AQAP’s hold on the three cities didn’t last. As bin Laden had noted in his letter, AQAP had the "battle and siege of the whole world against [it]." U.S. and Saudi airstrikes pounded Zinjibar for months, and in June 2012 the Yemeni military, supported by the popular committees, pushed AQAP out of Jaar and Zinjibar. AQAP has returned to hiding in Yemen’s under-governed mountains while the popular committees, still funded by Sanaa, remain an active force in securing what was, for about a year, AQAP’s emirate.

* * * 

At the same time the Yemeni government was preparing its counteroffensive, jihadists in Mali were trying to establish an emirate of their own. In March 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular separatist group of Tuareg rebels indigenous to northern Mali and invigorated by fighters returning from the Libyan civil war, formed a tenuous alliance with Ansar Dine, a local jihadist group. On March 21, 2012, unable to control the Tuareg insurgency, Mali’s military junta ousted the president and suspended the constitution. Amid the chaos of the coup, the Tuareg-jihadist coalition gained control of three major cities — Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu — and immediately declared itself the Independent State of Azawad.

The alliance didn’t last. Ansar Dine and its al Qaeda allies — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) — quickly imposed strict sharia law and drove the MNLA out of the coalition. Whereas in Yemen, AQAP had made exceptions in its interpretation of Islamic law, such as allowing locals to continue the national pastime of chewing the narcotic leaf known as qat, the jihadist government in Azawad imposed a strict curfew, required women to wear the hijab, and banned alcohol, smoking, and music. Women were whipped for not covering up, suspected thieves were amputated, and unmarried couples were stoned for adultery.

AQIM’s leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, protested this severity in an internal al Qaeda document recovered later by the Associated Press. "One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion," Wadoud wrote to the jihadists governing in Timbuktu. "Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahideen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment."

Wadoud’s warnings were ignored. Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJAO alienated locals accustomed to a much more moderate form of Islam. Residents in Timbuktu reported that all chances of gaining their allegiance were lost when jihadists smashed the tombs of their saints with pickaxes and shovels. The jihadists also began exploiting the region for economic gain through drug and human trafficking, arms smuggling, and kidnapping of Western nationals for ransom. About 300,000 Malians fled their homes to avoid human rights abuses, the strict application of sharia law, and the overall lack of security. Even without popular support, the jihadist government retained a tenuous hold on the region until, in January 2013, a joint French and Malian military operation pushed out Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJAO, ending the 10-month-old state.

* * * 

These failed experiments in Islamist governance haven’t deterred the Islamic State, though. Where the emirates of Waqar and Azawad attempted to impose new governments on Yemeni and Malian citizens, the Islamic State has gone a step farther, declaring itself a caliphate — the rightful religious, not just political, authority in the regions it governs. The claim "reeks of arrogance," analyst J.M. Berger wrote, "demanding an oath of loyalty from essentially all Muslims, with dissenters being labeled sinners at best, or apostates at worst."

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Islamic State would reject bin Laden’s warnings about waiting for the opportune moment to establish a state. The organization has always separated itself from al Qaeda’s central command. In the same trove of documents recovered from Abbottabad that included bin Laden’s warning to AQAP, other internal letters reveal that the al Qaeda leadership worried that their Iraqi affiliate had become a liability. In 2011, after years of bloody civil war in which the Islamic State (then operating under the names al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq) fought against U.S. troops, Shiite militias, and even other Sunni jihadists in Iraq’s north and west, al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn privately suggested that the core leadership "severs its organizational ties with the Islamic State of Iraq" and disavow years of the two groups’ partnership. Bin Laden demurred, but as the Islamic State expanded its operations into Syria and began clashing with the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s designated affiliate, circumstances changed. In February, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, expelled the Islamic State from the organization, saying that he was "not pleased" with them.

The Islamic State has always set itself apart, but is it imprudent enough to repeat the same mistakes that its al Qaeda rivals made in Yemen and Mali over the last three years?

Like AQAP in Yemen, the Islamic State has tried to soften its image and win hearts and minds in Iraq and Syria. It promotes its charity work on social media, showing jihadists passing out free food for poor residents celebrating Ramadan, and in its Syrian capital, Raqqa, it has engaged in public works projects like the construction of a new marketplace. But it has also begun consolidating power. And despite the ways in which the Islamic State’s assault in Iraq has been framed as a Sunni vs. Shiite conflict, the reality is more complicated. In June, the Islamic State executed 13 moderate Sunni clerics in Mosul, according to McClatchy. It has also begun rounding up high-ranking figures in the Sunni coalition that facilitated its surge through western Iraq last month. "[The Islamic State] called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did," Haidar Abadi, a member of Iraq’s parliament, told Reuters. "And now [the Islamic State] is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don’t believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute."

The Islamic State seems intent on replicating the failed attempts at state formation in Waqar and Azawad. This has included pillaging Iraq’s resources with little regard for the population under its control. The Islamic State is making millions smuggling Iraqi oil to Syria and beyond, but their occupation has prompted fuel and electricity shortages in Anbar, and the cost of scarce goods has inflated. The Islamic State’s conservative reading of sharia law has been written into its new city charter for Mosul. In tacit recognition of Wadoud’s warning in Mali, there have not yet been any public executions and people can reportedly still buy cigarettes, but it has begun purging the city of religious minorities. Residents of Mosul look warily towards Fallujah, where lashings and beheadings are now legal punishments after six months of jihadist occupation. The Islamic State has also begun destroying the region’s cultural heritage — Shiite mosques and Christian churches, but also the shrines of fellow Sunnis, which the jihadists says are tantamount to idolatry. In July, the Islamic State blew up a shrine to the prophet Jonah shared by all three Abrahamic religions. In one video of the demolition, a witness can be heard saying, "No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels."

* * *

This kind of puritanism is fundamental to Salafi jihadists’ idea of governance. It is also exactly what alienated Yemenis and Malians in al Qaeda’s attempted emirates. It is a lesson that the Islamic State has not learned and, within their rigid ideological strictures, perhaps cannot. "There are those that cheered the gunmen," a resident of Tikrit told the Washington Post, "but where are they now? They have all fled." The U.N. refugee agency reports that more than a million Iraqis have fled the Islamic State’s advances in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, and those left behind are already distressed by the first few weeks of jihadist rule. "People are suffering," a man in Mosul told the Washington Post. "These people are fighters. They are not capable of running a state."

But if the Islamic State hasn’t learned the lesson, neither have other jihadists. Last month, a new message from the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra began circulating online, in which he declares the establishment of his own Syrian emirate and the immediate implementation of sharia. The move seems motivated more by Jabhat al-Nusra’s rivalry with the Islamic State than an interest in governing. The Nusra Front, the region’s al Qaeda affiliate, competes with the Islamic State — for recruits, supplies, territory, and funds. In announcing the emirate, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra claimed that the organization has lost $1 billion to the Islamic State.

In both Yemen and Mali, it took months to force the jihadists out of power, despite their ineptitude at governing. Large-scale military offensives by the central government, supported by Western intelligence and airstrikes, were necessary to force the jihadists into retreat. These offensives, when they happened, were the result of months of monitoring and planning, and the necessary level of Western support may well prove different in Iraq. As in Yemen, Iraqi tribes are reportedly organizing to stanch the Islamic State’s spread. But in both Yemen and Mali, the jihadists’ battle to win the hearts and minds of the people and assert themselves as legitimate governments failed long before troops retook the cities. The early indications suggest the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have learned little since 2011 — and they’re fighting a losing battle.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola