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From Electricity to Sewage, U.S. Intelligence Says the Islamic State Is Fast Learning How to Run a Country

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 ...

REUTERS/Stringer
REUTERS/Stringer

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.

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."

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