Small Wars Journal

Baqiya Wa Tatamadad (Lasting and Expanding): A Neoclassical Realist Analysis of the Daesh Quasi-State

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 7:29am

Baqiya Wa Tatamadad (Lasting and Expanding): A Neoclassical Realist Analysis of the Daesh Quasi-State

Kyle Amonson

By the conclusion of 2014, the Sunni terrorist organization known as Daesh had established a strong foothold in Iraq, Syria and several countries on the periphery of the Middle East in an attempt to establish an “Islamic State,” or caliphate, to practice their extremist religious views and enforce sharia law. Although Daesh is primarily known in the West for their barbaric violence, they gained traction in the Middle East by seizing vast swaths of territory and establishing a government organizational structure with financial holdings comparable to a small country. Daesh’s use of information technology multiplied the effectiveness of tactics employed by terrorist networks for decades, capitalizing on the exponential growth of global interconnectedness while simultaneously introducing the challenge of opposing a terrorist network that is seizing and holding territory in an effort to invoke independent sovereignty (McChrystal et al, 2015, pg. 31). However, Daesh’s aggressive, expansionist, foreign policy, lack of commonly understood and communicated goals and organizational immaturity hindered their ability to successfully establish characteristics consistent with an, internationally recognized, successful state. This research paper will analyze Daesh’s primary successes and failures to operate as a state through the objective lens of the neoclassical realism theory within the historical context of Iraq and Syria.

This research is especially important because the international community is currently plagued with a barrage of religious extremist-based terrorist groups attempting to influence regional sovereign states. The lofty pursuit to seize, hold territory and establish a state by a terrorist group is a unique challenge. One key purpose of this study is to analyze and assess how Daesh’s actions as a non-state actor either supported or hindered their goals of establishing a religious caliphate. Daesh calls itself a state, but do they act like one, and have their actions brought them closer or farther away from the goal of establishing a state to enforce sharia law? Is their true goal, based on a neoclassical realist approach, to establish boundaries and territorial security to reach a religious “status quo” society where they can mandate their extremist brand of Islam? This research will analyze those questions.

The paper is structured to begin with the explanation of realism and neoclassical realism, followed by the historical context to demonstrate the religious and political instability in the region. Next, Daesh’s goal of a religious caliphate is identified, and supplemented by, their actions as a non-state actor attempting to operate as a state. This paper will conclude with an analysis of Daesh’s primary successes and failures in their attempt to establish a sovereign state.


Theoretical Framework

This study will focus on the internal actions of Daesh through the theoretical framework of neoclassical realism. The purpose of utilizing neoclassical realism is to integrate domestic variables of analysis to understand how Daesh operates internally and how such actions frame their foreign policy. Analysis of a non-state actor utilizing a state-centric framework is unique in application but will assist us to distinguish the difference between consistent national variables. Most importantly, this method is favorable to analyze how Daesh’s domestic variables and use of power affect their ability to function as a state. This will be accomplished by analyzing Daesh’s goals to keep, increase and demonstrate power in addition to their actual distribution of state power and foreign policy behavior.

Realism. Realism is the oldest and most accepted theoretical framework within the political science and international relations community. While realism was only recognized in the second half of the nineteenth century, its key ideas were derived from the scholarly works of Rousseau, Hobbes, Machiavelli and Thucydides, dating back as early as 460 B.C. The key concept of realism revolves around the sovereign nation-state and its pursuit of power to satisfy national interests within the anarchy of the international community. Realism focuses on an ideology based on the profoundly pessimistic view of the human condition, the prospects for change in the human behavior and the thought that human nature will inevitably lead to war while attempting to develop power to support a state's interests (Lobel et al, 2009, pg. 14). Realists believe no one can protect your state but itself, security can only be guaranteed through self-help, and regardless of a state's personal goals, the one common interest is survival. Additionally, neorealists focus on the anarchical concept of states existing in a community lacking central authority, where nationalism and security competition lead to inevitable conflict.

Neoclassical Realism. Political scientists and international relations scholars developed the philosophical position of neoclassical realism following the Cold War as a way to further analyze the internal behavior of states. As a whole, the neoclassical theory agrees with the main tenets of realism. However, neoclassical realism expands on the concept of the state and specifically challenges how domestic actions and inter-governmental relations affect the international actions of a state and its foreign policy. Neoclassical realism builds upon the complex relationship between the state and society found in classical realism without sacrificing the central insight of neorealism about the constraints of the international system (Lobel et al, 2009, pg. 13). In addition to security, neoclassical realists examine what priorities state leaders establish and how leaders interact with the elements of their society that translate into political and military power while focusing on the internal dynamics of states (Lobell et al, 2009, pg. 3). In summary, neoclassical realism applies the lens of realism and further magnifies the individual aspects within the state to examine how the domestic activities of the state affect international relations.

International relations academia attributes many of the key characteristics of neoclassical realism to the Indian-American political scientist Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria contrasts two types of realist ideologies, classical and defensive realism, to explain the foreign policy behavior which he describes as “the attempt at expansion, not its success” (Zakaria, 1998, pg. 8). In concept, classical realism describes that states will expand when they can, where as defensive realism describes that states will expand when they have to ensure security rather than increase power. Through the concept of defensive realism, absent a threatening environment, states have no systemic incentive to expand (Zakaria, 1998, pg. 9).

Kenneth Waltz, international relations scholar, introduced the power-balancing theory within the framework of realism. This theory accounts for the constant shifting of power and security competition throughout the international community. The challenge with the power-balancing theory and neoclassical realism lies in the examination of immature states. When states are immature and fragile, with limited resources and an undeveloped government framework, they are challenged to address the concepts of power-balancing, expansion and territorial security. Neoclassical realism does not move further away from Waltz’s first or second image. Instead, it provides a “two-level theorization of foreign policy by emphasizing the roles of state-level factors, such as domestic politics, and perceptions held by the state policy makers” (Foulon, 2015, p.12).

The relevant convergence of these theories (in relation to this research) is the question of if, when, how fast and where should a state expand during its development? Also, how can a non-state actor power-balance against a multitude of regional and international state actors? States do not expand in a map frenzy - anytime, anywhere - but in a rational manner, in places and at times to minimize costs and risks, in areas that are weaker, and when their power is on the rise (Zakaria, 1998, pg. 8). If the goal is to establish a “status quo,” as Daesh pursues to establish a religious state, security must be assured in order to ensure the state’s ideologies are protected, as well as its constituents. Additionally, to ensure success, a state must balance state power and effectively channel it, at the right time, through leadership and government systems to facilitate growth. In this theory, neoclassical realism provides the requisite variables of analysis to examine the progression of Daesh, as a non-state actor, to best highlight their success and shortcomings as an organization.

The Middle East: A Historical Overview

The Middle East has often been referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” The ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, directly translating to “between rivers,” was originally established in the land that is now Iraq and Syria. Mesopotamia flourished as a result of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which enabled agricultural development, transportation and trade. The Mesopotamian civilization demonstrated their complex culture by laying claim to the first formal laws governing a region, Hammurabi’s Code, and written language, known as Cuneiform. After Mesopotamia, the Middle East fell under the rule of several subsequent empires, primarily the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians and the Persian Empire (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 35). Regardless of which empire was in territorial control, the Middle Eastern culture was primarily based on tribes external to the main city centers.

The seminal moment in this region’s history was the rise of the Islamic religion. Historians trace the origin of Muslim culture to a man named Muhammed in the Arabian town of Mecca at the end of the sixth century (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 40). Muhammad was in his forties when the Islamic faith claims he started receiving visions from Allah. Through these visions Muhammad developed what is now the Islamic faith. What is unique to this religion is that Muhammed did not just create a faith, he subsequently created the first “Islamic State.” This theocracy is the integration of political, social and religious ideals that were originally based on Arabic tribal structures.

In a region controlled by Persia at the time, the Islamic State quickly spread and gained territory, not just by military means, but through religious expansion among the Arabic tribes. The common method of advancement was through an appeal to Arab kinship and the promise of riches and paradise (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 41). This introduced the world to the concept of the Arabic Islamic State, marked by the fluid characteristic of religious expansion that circumvents all aspects of territorial boundaries or political structure. While the initial Islamic States’ conquest was successful in defeating the Persians, this exposed the first set of Islamic State leaders to the challenges of controlling and directing a decentralized asymmetric theocratic organization.

Following Muhammed’s death, Muslims became divided on the idea of who should be the caliph, or leader, of the Islamic State. The term for the Islamic government ruled by a caliph is a caliphate, or formal Islamic State (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 16). These two divided Muslim groups became known, as they are today, as the Sunnis and the Shias. The Sunni’s believe the caliph should be elected by popular vote whereas the Shias believe the caliph has to be a direct descendent of Muhammed, recognized as the Ayatollah. Understandably, due to the divergence of leadership and the religious decisions associated with those leaders, this chasm within the Islamic community continues to cause immense conflict to this day. While not defined by specific boundaries, Iraq remained the cultural and economic center of the Islamic State throughout most of history.

With several significant assaults, the former Mesopotamian region was a politically chaotic location throughout most of early Islamic history. The initial Islamic State was destroyed by the Mongols who were subsequently conquered by the Ottoman Empire, who also endured a chaotic expansion period. One of the key challenges the Ottoman Empire faced was that they were unable to maintain loyal military forces across their provinces, the result being that local leaders, with local interests and local militias, filled the void (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 63).

The Persians (ruled by shahs) and Ottomans (ruled by sultans) faced similar challenges as they attempted to unify and promote cohesion through the region. Related to neoclassical realism, the Ottomans over-prioritized expanding their empire and exceeded their ability to apply state power to project and enforce their domestic structure. They overestimated their ability to control Iraq and Syria and did not emphasize internal development or appeal to the existing tribal structures. Like many other ancient empires, the Ottomans were fueled by the simple concept of “the strong do what they have the power to do,” making significant errors in their Middle East conquest (Thucydides et al, 1805, pg. 402).

The Ottoman Empire ruled this region until their defeat during the First World War, after which the British established the political boundaries of Iraq and Syria and introduced the region to a rudimentary “Western” government structure. Once again, this led to a chaotic period in the Middle East, of “states developed not out of logic of socio-economically driven conditions, but belatedly out of the ruins of empires…not as a “melting pot” within a cohesive national identity, but more as a powder key of competing aspirations” (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 50).

One key factor contributing to the present conflict in the Middle East is that many consider the state borders as “artificial.” When the European Powers created the territorial boundaries after WWI they did so without regard to existing Arabic tribal boundaries or cultural environment. This created a substantial challenge for any future democratic organization to govern among divided people groups, whose only commonality is their state. This naturally and directly affected national cohesion, resulting in a challenge to weak governments, thus providing opportunities for other non-state and religious actors to take charge.

Many of the Post WWI occupants of Iraq and Syria were still organized as tribes, resentful of the European form and fashion of government, creating a general distrust of the West and any structure perceived as non-Muslim. These tribes were still important non-state actors and the Sunni, Shia and a people group known as the Kurds, who were included in Iraq’s boundaries when the territory was drawn, were all key players in the newly established “state.” Between these three factions and the intra-state power struggles, developing nationalist cohesion was nearly impossible. Iraq’s King during this nascent period was judiciously noted “in Iraq, there is still no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic ideal… connected by no common tie.. and perpetually ready to rise against any government” (Stansfeld, 2016, pg. 69).

Iraq struggled as an authoritarian state until transitioning to a totalitarian regime through the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Although technically a republic, Iraq post Second Gulf War continues to be challenged to establish a democratic government. Syria withstood a series of military coups throughout the 19th century and has also struggled to establish an efficiently operating republic. Both countries have been plagued by the lack of state identity due to strong religious disagreements and ethnic division. This complete lack of nationalism and abhorrence to any idea of Western government or ideals has made this region a breeding ground for counter government organizations and terrorist networks. Comparable to HIV or AIDS virus in humans, the environmental factors that weaken the host, in this case Iraq and Syria, indirectly strengthen and empower attackers (McChrystal et al, 2015, pg. 32).


In addition to understanding the past culture of the Mesopotamian region it is also important to understand the historical and modern concept of statehood to better comprehend the characteristics of the Islamic State. While many of the states in the Middle East were formally established following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, statehood has existed since the Peace Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 that established the modern state system. The modern state system was based on the concept of recognized territorial boundaries in which a formal political body held sovereignty, the supreme rule within a territory. However, it was not until the twentieth century, as global empires collapsed, that sovereign statehood and concepts of self-governance acquired the status of universal organizing principles (Baylis et al, 2017, pg. 23). Based on the Westphalian principles, the key concepts of statehood are still territory, sovereignty, and autonomy.

Additionally, a central component of statehood is legitimacy. A state must have borders that are recognized within the region and legitimacy that is respected both internationally and domestically. As empires fell in the 19th century and were replaced by identified nation-states, these states strived to establish their legitimacy through formal governments and cooperation with other nation states and organizations. In modern times the test of a state is: whether they have a designated territory, whether the state is capable of operating on its own power with a government structure and whether the state is considered legitimate by foreign and domestic entities. Typically, the United Nations decides which states are recognized following a revolution or independence referendum. 

Daesh: A Historical Summary

Not since the Arab Muslim armies spread out to conquer the world in the aftermath of the death of Prophet Muhammed in the seventh century have we witnessed such a powerful force that has combined brilliant military and political strategy along with abject cruelty and oppression of those under its thrall.

-- Ahmed Rashid (Lister, 2015, pg. 4)

The Islamic State is a transnational Sunni Islamist insurgent and terrorist group that has expanded its control over areas of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria since 2013 (Freeman, 2014, pg. 2). The rapid development of Daesh as an organization shocked the international community and caught both regional states and foreign powers off-guard. Daesh was not new in any form; it grew within the ranks of existing terrorist networks and seized the opportunity to expand within the war-torn provinces of Iraq and Syria during the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the region. To effectively analyze the origins of Daesh, we have to analyze both the organization and theology it was born from.

The premise of Islamic radicalism, in its most simplified form, is based on two concepts. First is the focus on the original theocratic Islamic State of Muhammed’s time, during which the religious government ruled the region and the law of the land was synonymous with traditional Islamic principles. This state is seen as the Muslim “paradise on earth” and referred to as the caliphate. The term “caliphate,” previously recognized as just an Islamic government, has changed slightly in definition. In relation to terrorist organizations, a caliphate now more directly refers to the traditional Islamic State depicted in Muhammed’s time period with the incorporation of sharia law. Shieik Abu Muhammed al-Adnani al-Shami, spokesperson for Daesh, described the establishment of the caliphate as “a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer” and “the neglected obligation of the era.” He states that the internally ruling Shura Council had formally established the “Islamic State” and thus a caliphate and that “Muslims around the world should now pledge their allegiance to the new caliph” (Hashim. 2014. p. 43). While devout Muslims believe the entirety of the world should be an Islamic state, this mindset demonstrates that through the framework of realism that their initial goal is to establish a state with the purpose of achieving security and a level of status quo culture to exercise sharia law.

Second is the ever increasing globalization, of not just the Middle East, but the world. However, the Arabic culture, as a whole, sees any democratic government as a Western ideal. They perceive capitalism and a free market as a Western concept and they believe the non-Islamic, liberal-based laws are also Western encroachment on their traditions. Devout Muslims believe their dream of living in their paradise on earth is being threatened by Western culture. At what point did this idea become the violent extremism observed in the past 20 years?

One incendiary notion originates with the Muslim Brotherhood and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar, and later an iconic martyr, who wrote the book titled Milestones. One of Islam’s most influential authors, his writing has shaped the principles and vision of today’s Islamic extremists. At its heart is a profound hatred for Western values (Suarez, 2013, pg. 12). Inspired by the works of Hassan al-Banna and enabled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb’s writings justified violence and united radical fighters against a renewed pursuit of Islamic principles and hatred towards the West.

Enter al-Qaeda (AQ), led by Osama bin Laden. AQ had been growing since the 1990’s but achieved notoriety through their September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Centers. AQ popularized the term jihad, or what was recognized internationally as their “holy war.” In Arabic, ‘jihad’ simply means struggle. ‘Jihad’ can refer to a purely internal struggle to be a better Muslim, a struggle to make society more closely align with the teachings of the Koran, or a call to arms to wage war in self-defense of an Islamic community under attack. Moreover, in the last of these meanings there are various interpretations of what constitutes ‘attack’ and ‘community,’ and which methods can be used morally and spiritually for self-defense (Baylis et al, 2017, p. 539).

In 1999 AQ entrusted a Jordanian named Abu Musav al-Zarqawi to establish their operations in Iraq. AQ loaned Zarqawi $200,000 with the task of initiating formal terrorist training camps in Iraq. Zarqawi’s ultimate objectives were to undermine occupying forces while simultaneously sparking a sectarian conflict in Iraq (Lister, 2015, pg. 27). Zarqawi not only hated the West, he equally despised Shia Muslims, believing they were just as much infidels as Christians and Jews. This multifaceted aggression towards fellow Muslims (internally), and western culture (externally) would later serve as a fatal flaw. Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq became known as Jama’at al-Tawhi wa’al-Jihad (JTWJ).

Zarqawi rapidly grew JTWJ, enveloping local terrorist groups and integrating them into his organization through both local recruiting and strategic messaging that demonstrated his organization’s success. He formally pledged support to al-Qaeda in 2004 and reflagged JWTJ as al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI). However, there were several key differences between AQI and AQ that produced friction. While AQ sought to initially destroy the distant enemy to gain notoriety in order to eventually topple the local enemy of Arab rulers, AQI had an entirely different approach, believing that political power and territory must first be won in the Middle East (Lister, 2015, pg. 9). AQ’s actions were consistent with classical realism where as AQI would be classified as defensive realism, focusing internally first, acknowledging the oversight of the Ottomans many years before. However, AQI’s long term plan and foreign policy also differed from AQ.

Although AQ sought to strike foreign powers, they believed patience and deliberate progress would be the best approach to their jihad. AQI slowly shifted focus to pursue fast results through brutal violence in the Middle East, often targeting Shia civilians (Lister, 2015, pg. 29). By strategically targeting Shia Iraqis, Zarqawi ignited a cultural tinderbox, and a sectarian bloodbath swept through Iraq. Even AQ grew uncomfortable with Zarkawi’s extremism (McChrystal et al, 2015, pg.29). However, AQI’s dramatic approach to establishing dominance in their region amplified publicity that directly correlated to an increase in support throughout the Islamic extremist community.

While Zarkawi died in 2006, what initially seemed like a fatal blow to the AQI movement was quickly reinvigorated when his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, took over and immediately renamed AQI “The Islamic State in Iraq,” emplacing a government style cabinet for the organization, pledging allegiance to a new leader named Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and divorcing the revitalized organization from al-Qaeda (Lister, 2015, pg. 30). Baghdadi assumed control in 2010, and by 2013 had expanded Daesh territory to include Syria, proclaiming himself the first caliph in June 2014. Daesh’s notoriety had risen to the point where Forbes Magazine classified Baghdadi as the 54th most powerful person on the planet (Stergiou, 2015, p. 3).


Daesh’s new organization in Iraq, now separated from AQ, marked a new era for terrorism in the region. Daesh established a new set of goals and established the Arabic mantra “baqiya wa tatamadad,” directly translated as “lasting and expanding.” Though ignored by many policy makers and the media, most so-called Islamic movements do not aspire to global conquest (Brown, 2015, p. 4). Daesh was different than the average terrorist network, posing a new challenge to international security. Rather than wage a jihad, Daesh strove to establish the “caliphate of old” through seizing and holding territory, ruling it with a formal government, utilizing foreign policy to recruit, and establishing a state to practice their radical beliefs to fuel ambitions of expansion.

The aspect of classical realism described by Kenneth Waltz that assumes some states pursue a “status quo” is initially self-admitted in the case of Daesh. Although global conquest is still in their national interest due to their religious beliefs, it is not a significant focus of Daesh at present. Utilizing deductive reasoning, applied to neoclassical framework, to analyze Daesh’s national interests in comparison to their actions domestic structure reveals several flaws leading to their strategic failure of caliphate building an aspiring state.

Application of Neoclassical Realism to Daesh

Daesh leadership, centered around a caliph and head council, focused on a defensive realist approach to secure their conquered territory and develop domestically. However, they quickly and unintentionally outran their state power and were unable to contain their international operations. Many classical realists have noted it is not uncommon for leaders to misjudge their states’ relative power leading to a level of growth they cannot secure (Zakaria, 2001, pg. 32). Although highly successful in seizing territory and effectively ruling regions through terror, Daesh was unable to adequately communicate these goals internally to their rapidly recruited insurgent fighters to ensure consistency in their actions. Additionally, while Daesh leadership may have believed they could effectively wage a war against the Shia Muslims to establish rule in their own territory, they did not intent to fight a war against the West. Daesh’s actions demonstrated that they felt violence against the Shia’s was “defensive” in nature, justified to reinforce Sunni beliefs, while they rapidly exhausted the power to counter two simultaneous fronts.

Focusing on Daesh’s internal agenda within their territory, they did not prioritize expansion past the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria. Once their initial foothold was established, their plan was to defend and reinforce that position while subverting the Shia-led government of both countries. They first tried to marginalize the governments and challenge their legitimacy before attacking directly and increasing the intensity of civil conflict. Their strategic intent was to create a political vacuum that provided opportunity for growth. This specific strategy permitted Daesh to operate unopposed within pre-existing Sunni regions of Iraq (Harrison, 2014, pg. 40). Daesh demonstrated the capability to shift based on requirements of the region and assert power as required on a case by case basis. General Stanley McChrystal described:

In the deeply traditional, tribal Fallujah, AQI dressed in the robes of the sheikh and sponsored traditional Islamic poetry festivals. Operatives exerted influence through local proxies on the Mujahedeen Shura Council and respected local religious figures AQI won over or intimidated. But if an AQI operative traveled forty-five miles east to Baghdad, he blended in with the urban landscape, wore city clothes and drove VBIEDs through city traffic (McChrystal, 2015, pg. 31).

One fatal flaw was Daesh’s reliance on foreign fighters. Although having successful marketing and recruitment methods that may have worked perfectly for an organization like AQ, radicalized foreign fighters did not always act in accordance with Daesh “foreign policy,” thus gaining more enemies than the organization was able to balance power against. One example is foreign fighters conducting acts of terrorism in the name of ISIS. While this tool helped enforce discipline within held territory, when extremists executed or claimed acts of terrorism in the name of ISIS the Daesh domestic government was unable to counter the amount of opposition that was amplified towards the organization. Whether they intended to or not, Daesh expanded well beyond their borders through “insurgent cells,” gaining unwanted attention. Within 12 months Daesh had attracted an air coalition of over 60 states targeting their operations. For an organization with no assets to contest air superiority, this vastly exceeded their capabilities to defend against.

Zakaria’s neoclassical realism shares many concepts with Mearsheimer’s offensive and defensive realism explanations. Daesh intended to grow as a defensive organization, holding their state, developing internally and establishing a state before transitioning to an offensive organization and expanding. In line with their motto, they needed to make an enduring organization before they could significantly expand. According to the realism theory and international policy, Daesh could never reach legitimate statehood. Even if they were able to subvert the Iraqi and Syrian government and control territory with autonomous rule, their terror based rule of law would never be recognized by the international community and they would be stuck in quasi-state limbo. The Sunni extremists who established the laws for the Islamic State would never enable the organization to be recognized due to inherent humanitarian law violations of Sharia law.

However, Daesh did exhibit many characteristics consistent with a state to develop their internal policies and domestic rule. Primary examples of this is Daesh’s formal government, their sizeable financial holdings and development within their territory. While immature, Daesh’s non-hierarchical government structure and bureaucratic organizations were more formal than any other terror network to date. Daesh organized their territories into what they referred to as “wilayas,” or administrative regions. Through the neoclassical lens examining power distance, this displayed a clear structure to control territory and rule the cities they seized. They financed these endeavors through the seizure of assets, extortion and siphoning Iraq’s oil supply. “Estimates put ISIS’s revenue from smuggled oil to be at one million dollars a day. The organization’s total assets were believed to be at two billion dollars in June 2014” (Brown, 2015, p. 17). By 2014, Daesh required complex management networks, with CFO-like figures and professional administrators who allocated and monitored the groups budgets (Stergio, 2016, p.12). Once established, Daesh even instituted their own currency, regulated by their version of a treasury. This demonstrates just another tactic they utilized to establish state-like characteristics and enforce dependency from the populace to promote their own brand of caliphate nationalism.

Daesh maintained the concept of theocratic integration with a central caliph, a cabinet with a ruling council and officially outlined how they would govern and develop charters for their new cities. They re-established formal Sharia law in which drugs, alcohol and tobacco were forbidden, prayers would be performed five times daily, women had to dress moderately and punishments were rashly enforced by an Islamic court system and roving police force. Daesh also integrated with the tribal leaders and allowed them opportunities to pledge their allegiance and repent for past sins. They even put up billboards at major transportation routes to message their Islamic values (Zalin, 2014, p. 5).

A key case study related to neoclassical realism is their soft-power governance within held territory. As hard as it is to believe, Daesh invested significantly in public works. They established a marketplace in al-Raqqa, ran an electricity office, consumer protection office, installed power lines, hosted trade workshops, provided polio-vaccines, ran several orphanages, organized an Islamic program based on the Boy Scouts of America, fixed potholes and transportation infrastructure and even operated an “Islamic State Post Office” (Zelin, 2014, p.15). While Daesh’s actions may not have always indicated it, they invested in their internal development for the long haul. They also learned from history that without the favor of the region’s populace, they would be unsuccessful. Conditions in the Middle East are ripe for its inhabitants to embrace an ideology that promises a positive change (Suarez, 2015, pg. 24). Daesh recognized that if they could provide more than the state’s government they could control the populace and establish their Islamic State.


Daesh recognized the flaws in many empires and organizations that had come before them in their diverse and complex region. While classical realists would say “nations expand their political interests abroad when their relative power increases,” Daesh recognized that their complicated geographic region required much more attention (Zakaria, 2001, pg. 18). They effectively accounted for these errors and developed a policy based on a neoclassical defensive theory that applied the requisite amount of domestic development in their region to gain favor and establish legitimacy with the diverse populace, conducting deliberate expansion only to ensure security. Daesh aimed to leverage the region’s lack of national identity and failing democracy to provide hope and purpose through promises of a religious re-awakening.

In accordance with their initial intent proposed by Zarkawi, they believed war against the Shia Muslims was required to insure their caliphate; this was defensive and necessary. Unlike any non-state terrorist network before them, they did establish many characteristics consistent with a state within their domestic government. However, Daesh was not able to develop state power quickly enough to defend their national interests. Their acts of violence gained incredible notoriety in the region, in addition to an aggressively expanding insurgent network enacting violence on foreign soil in the name of Daesh. Unfortunately for Daesh, due to their fatal oversight in key areas, by 2015 they were vastly overmatched by foreign powers in concert with regional allies and by 2017 they were greatly diminished, marginalized and, while still an international threat, their ascendance as an emerging state is rejected with the same aggression and speed as Daesh had initially grown.


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About the Author(s)

Kyle Amonson is an active duty Army Major and graduate student at Royal Military College of Canada. Major Amonson received his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech and holds a master’s degree in International Relations - International Security from Norwich University. He has deployed in support of various operations throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Opinions expressed in his articles are those of the author's and not those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.