Small Wars Journal

Pragmatic Takfiris: Organizational Prioritization Along Islamic State’s Ideological Threshold

Tue, 07/26/2016 - 1:59am

Pragmatic Takfiris: Organizational Prioritization Along Islamic State’s Ideological Threshold

Craig Noyes


Much has been written about Islamic State’s tactics, strategy, ideology, and organizational goals. The discourse surrounding its characteristics compels strong opinions. The conceit behind most of these arguments, however, is that a single schema can decipher Islamic State – a complex organization influenced by myriad variables that span culture, structure, and agency. If, instead, we approach Islamic State as an adaptive organization – rooted in ideological principles while simultaneously invested in its bureaucratic survival – then we are able to understand its actions and better anticipate its decision-making.

In this article I argue that Islamic State’s grand strategy is based in its takfiri-jihadist, Islamist ideology. Islamic State is not a Salafist organization. Its attempts to emulate the Muhammadan era are fleeting and inconsistent. Instead, Islamic State has a propensity to leverage modern mechanisms, shirk ijma (consensus within the Islamic world), and demonstrate bidaa (innovation within Islamic ideology) when it is organizationally or ideologically convenient. Islamic State purports to be a “caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.”[i] In actuality, Islamic State is a revolutionary organization intent on redefining Islamic principles. In fact, this is a goal that its members boast about when asked directly.[ii]

Presently, Islamic State is primarily focused on developing its organizational strength and facilitating its state building exercise. Its declaration of a caliphate was advantageous to both its pursuit of an authoritarian total state and the advancement of its long-term ideological goals. However, Islamic State’s leadership shifts its decision-making – focusing on either of its priorities – depending on the organization’s strength or existential challenges. This article focuses on the nature of Islamic State’s decision-making and the reason of its pivots between the temporal and the ideological.

This article accomplishes several tasks. First, I examine four cases that focus on different areas of Islamic State governance: security state apparatus, the economy, education, and judicial enforcement. Each case is framed by the following question: when Islamic State is compelled to make significant governing decisions, does it choose a strictly ideological or a purely pragmatic path? The four cases reveal correlations amongst Islamic State’s actions. From these, we are able to identify certain trends in the organization’s priorities and decision-making.

Based on the case evidence, I argue that Islamic State’s decision-making is opportunistic, adaptive, and dependent upon its leaderships’ shifting propensity to implement its ideology. In the near term, IS seeks to establish an authoritarian total state. This temporal pursuit is driven by Islamic State’s intent to implement long-term ideological goals. However, it is only when Islamic State has adequate governing strength, or a decision cannot provide short-term organizational benefit, or IS’s ideological legitimacy and grand strategy are at stake that it pivots to overtly ideological decision-making. These as well as other independent and intervening variables influence Islamic State’s “ideological threshold” in decision-making. Because Islamic State is currently focused primarily on its short-term temporal goals, its governing decisions frequently counter Islamic State’s ideological positions. An ideological justification for such actions – as well as those that counter Islamic consensus, or ijma –may be provided. In many cases, however, validation is only offered ex poste facto, after a public response demands it. Islamic State’s actions depend primarily on the ideological prioritization of a topic and decisions’ opportunity costs vis-à-vis the organization’s strength.

Case One: Security State Apparatus - Establishing and Defending the Caliphate

By 2011 the United States’ military was withdrawing from Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) had survived, experimenting with models of taxation, extortion, coercion, and governance throughout Nineveh province. Mosul was its laboratory. Within a year it chose to exploit the nascent Syrian civil war and expand into that country’s eastern provinces. The pivot to territorial expansion and a pursuit of overt governance begged an important question: how would the organization create legitimacy, maintain influence, and sustain governmental authority? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could have seized the opportunity to institute Islamist principles. It was an opportunity to advance overtly ideological control. Instead, the leadership implemented a security state apparatus that proved effective under Saddam Hussein.

Islamic State’s early leaders knew the influence and effectiveness of robust security apparatuses. Some were imprisoned and monitored by U.S. forces. Others were former officers in the Iraqi military, including its intelligence system. The latter brought to bear significant expertise in surveillance, intelligence, and the hierarchical structures ubiquitous to regional armed forces and mukhabarat. The system that they implemented for ISIS – the amniyat – embraced the most effective aspects of Arab nation-state security structures and, in particular, those used by Saddam’s Baath Party in Iraq.

The amniyat’s lead architect, Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi (nom de guerre: Haji Bakr), was an officer in Saddam’s air defense forces and served in its intelligence services.[iii] Bakr believed that strict surveillance, comprehensive intelligence analysis, and a brutally enforced monopoly of violence were necessary for the organization. According to documents acquired by Der Spiegel, in 2013 Haji Bakr published his plans for an “Islamic Intelligence State” while deployed to Syria.[iv] He penned a design for a multi-armed organization that monitored all aspects of society, governance, military operations, and adversaries’ capabilities. The amniyat is strongly influenced by the Jihaz Haneen: the Iraqi Baath party’s intelligence and security services. Saddam Hussein was that system’s architect. What’s more, portions of those agencies were designed with KGB cooperation following the Iraqi-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1972.[v]

ISIS enthusiastically adopted Haji Bakr’s design for the “Islamic Intelligence State,” applying the structure throughout its territory. The design is essential to Islamic State’s expansion. Aaron Y. Zelin, by examining IS’s patterns of territorial infiltration and conquest, presents multiple cases across a variety of regions. He confirms what Der Spiegel and others captured anecdotally – that Islamic State uses its intelligence and security apparatus as the leading edge of its territorial conquests. IS uses the same structures to consolidate power and eliminate threats to the organization. This is done with brutal efficiency and shrewd pragmatism. Haji Bakr recommended techniques that were well worn by Saddam’s regime and other authoritarian governments. These included payoffs, cooptation through tribal marriage arrangements, blackmail, targeted assassinations, the employment of child spies to infiltrate familial spheres, and espionage targeting even the most intimate areas of society.[vi] Islamic State’s goal was to maximize its power and undermine threats to the organization’s existence. This was done with minimal reference to ideology or Islamic principle. It was a temporal power grab.

Islamic State’s ideological flexibility in the name of organizational growth is further evidenced by its cooperation with non-Islamist – and in some cases, non-Islamic – organizations. In Summer 2013, ISIS coordinated with Ahrar al-Sham and other Syrian rebel groups. When ISIS established sharia courts later that year, it offered their services as alternate venues for justice. The organization did not immediately execute an ideological purge of the other justice systems. ISIS also published joint statements with other groups, including the non-Islamist Free Syrian Army.[vii] Perhaps most shockingly, during a local magistrate’s meeting in Spring 2013, a lawyer introduced himself as representing ISIS. The man wore no beard, participated in the event, and communicated the organization’s “preference” for sharia law over secular legal codes.[viii] This is hardly the action of an uncompromisingly ideological monolith. Rather, knowing it would be too exposed if other groups protested, ISIS adopted a pragmatic position until it gained sufficient strength.

Islamic State – currently and in its prior forms (eg. ISI, ISIS) –leverages concepts that advance its organizational strength, despite their running counter to its tenets. In some cases, Islamic State assimilates behaviors that it explicitly denounces. For example, Islamic State abhors the Westphalian state system. Modern nation-state bureaucracies, borders, and communal identities are anathema to its Islamist principles. Islamic State vehemently condemns these concepts and has repeatedly stated its goal of upending the international political system.

Despite this ideological position, ISIS chose to organize many of its battalions by foreign fighters’ countries of origin. These katibas were established so that its fighters could more easily communicate and bond with their comrades.[ix] IS used nationality for short-term organizational gain; national katibas mitigated the challenges of language training, socialization, indoctrination, and cohesion that affect an army of international members. The decision also compressed the timeline for training, thus accelerating the deployment of recruits downrange. It was a pragmatic decision in light of the tempo and operational requirements of its military campaign. It also served ISIS’s recruitment strategy, allowing it to attract foreign recruits through familiar linguistic and cultural proclivities.

Over the past year Islamic State began disbanding some of the nationalist katibas and integrating foreign fighters into mixed units. Analysts suggest that this is not done for ideological reasons, however. Islamic State still exploits the expeditious benefits of national as well as linguistic identities. Rather, IS is reorganizing katibas because some members displayed greater loyalty to their units than Islamic State. A disaffected member told Michael Weiss in late 2015, for example, that a Francophone katiba was denied because of insubordination issues experienced within Libyan and Russian-speaking units.[x]

Case Two: Economy - Sustaining the Caliphate

Islamic State’s economic activities are further evidence of its opportunistic pragmatism. The structures they exploit, investment vehicles they leverage, monetary policies they pursue, and Islamic precedents they selectively use are illuminating. Islamic State’s ideology is indifferent to how the organization sustains itself. IS rarely invokes religious principle when developing economic policies. In fact, numerous Islamic State sources indicate that economics is viewed purely as a vehicle for organizational strength. This liberates IS in a way, enabling it to use whichever methods are most lucrative. The result is an economy that is primarily non-ideological and revenue streams that are as diverse as they are conventional.

According to a 2013-2014 administrative document, Islamic State’s primary concern regarding the “administration of wealth” is independence.[xi] IS seeks to eliminate any leverage that global economic players may possess. Yet Islamic State is also intent on “preserving the capabilities [personnel and infrastructure] that managed the production projects under the prior governments.”[xii] As a result, IS administers strict oversight while sustaining preexisting economic structures, most of which are dependent on external systems.

Islamic State’s participation in the highly lucrative oil trade illustrates this point quite effectively. Islamic State is deeply involved in and highly dependent upon oil extraction and trade. Islamic State’s recruitment of specialists and trained professionals has been widely reported.[xiii] From the early days of ISIS’s expansion into oil-rich eastern Syria, it mimicked the bureaucracies, processes, and hiring practices of national oil companies. When still awash in cash, it “headhunted” for engineers and analyzed the labor market so that it may offer competitive salaries.[xiv] These efforts were successful; Islamic State recruited foreign experts who strengthened their oil industry and other economic enterprises.[xv]

According to Islamic State’s internal documents, whenever possible, exchanges of commodities and currency should be executed “without an intermediary.”[xvi] The result is an increase in Islamic State’s interaction with external actors – primarily local businessmen[xvii] – as well as greater participation within international markets. The organization’s extortion of oil and other commodities – including wheat[xviii] – is evident. The actions are consistent with Islamic State’s economic goals, the administrative demands of a governing organization,[xix] and the consequences of governing a contested environment with limited resources. But IS goes further, honoring agreements made directly with international corporations and nation-states, allowing such actors to run a natural gas facility within its territory, for example. The Russian owned, Syrian built Tuweinan natural gas facility continues to produce gas that is shipped to Syrian held territory. A Russian firm continues to own and run the facility while Islamic State receives significant compensation in the form of gas, electricity, and protection payments.[xx]

Islamic State goal of self-sufficiency was conceded when it allowed Stroytransgaz to continue building, staffing, and maintaining the gas facility at Tuweinan.[xxi] The decision also compromised IS’s ideological purity. Islamic State’s ideology drives its pursuit for authoritarian control. If it does not maintain its independence as a total state, Islamic State loses its monopoly to impose its ideology. Yet Islamic State continues to participate in international commerce, share trade routes with external actors, earn revenue through illicit trade, and make other economic accommodations that expose as well as compromise its ideological end game. Its guidelines for administering “oil products,” for example, states, “It is not allowed for a person who has no pledge of allegiance on his neck to the caliph to invest in an oil or gas field or what has arisen from their trajectory.”[xxii] Yet Islamic State gave permission for Hesco to complete construction of the facility, Russian oil engineers are given safe passage to and from the site, and a sharing agreement provides gas, electricity, and payments to all players involved. It is a striking disavowal of Islamic State’s own ideologically-based administrative rules.

The organization participates in other types of trade that challenge any notion of Islamic State as an ideologically pure, Islamist organization. Islamic State bureaucratized its handling of antiquities, for example. Although the global press covered IS’s destruction of Palmyra and Mosul’s museum, Islamic State profits off of the sale of transferrable pieces. Compared to oil sales and taxation, the antiquities trade provides a miniscule revenue stream. However, the same office that oversees oil production – Diwan al-Rikaz – also monitors smuggling and antiquities sales.[xxiii] Islamic State administers the latter with meticulous records.[xxiv] Yet its ideology – and propaganda – condemn the very existence of the items off of which they draw a relatively insignificant profit. Most of the antiquity in question pre-date Islam or relate to non-Islamic civilizations, placing them in the abhorred realm of jahilliya, or “ignorance.” Islamists condemn the existence of such items and yet Islamic State created a bureaucratic structure through which it profits from its commerce.

Islamic State also profits from speculation in foreign currency markets. It exploits the region’s informal hawala money exchange system to position funds so they might be used in the Central Bank of Iraq’s currency auctions.[xxv] Analysts estimate that IS earns over $25 million in monthly profits from the enterprise. Forex markets are products of the modern, globalized banking system yet IS has no reservations participated in them. What’s more, experts suggest that some of the funds used by Islamic State were extorted from individuals under its control. This puts Islamic State’s actions ominously close the usury, a practice the Quran condemns.

Islamic State has made attempts to institute more Islamist economic policies. Tax policy is one area where Islamic State applies ideological principles with greater success. The organization still makes use of preexisting, non-Islamic tax collection infrastructure, personnel, and requirements.[xxvi] It assesses a 5% tax on irrigated crops, 10% on rain-fed crops, and percentages on services rendered by doctors.[xxvii] It applies taxes on utilities, telecommunication companies, vehicular traffic, and cash withdrawals.[xxviii] There are taxes on car registration, book purchases, and traffic violations. A plurality of these taxes mimic modern nation-state bureaucracy rather than any prophetic method. But Islamic State also institutes Islamic taxes it links back to the seventh century. Its revenue body – bayt al-mal – is a bureaucratic institution modeled off of seventh century structures.[xxix] ISIS and then Islamic State instituted zakat, charitable alms that Muslims are obligated to provide. This applies to all Muslims in its territory. Most are compelled to give 2.5% of their total assets – this is the generally accepted amount throughout the Islamic world – though others are paying up to 10%.[xxx]

As part of its brutal treatment of non-Muslims, Islamic State requires Christians to pay jizya. This tax – required of dhimma, or People of the Book – tends to be less than zakat. However, their treatment has been deplorable. Even when they are not harassed or threatened, non-Muslims do not have access to the services provided to Muslims. In 2014, Christians from Mosul said IS demanded they pay the equivalent of $250, although others were expected to pay “large sums.”[xxxi] Indeed, Jizya enforcement is common throughout Islamic State held territory.

Case Three: Education & Youth - Developing and Propagating the Caliphate

In order to satisfy its grand strategic goals, Islamic State must propagate its ideology. Its long-term viability requires a population of true believers that would grant it legitimacy and power. Such ideologues do not yet exist in a critical mass. For these and other reasons, education is a mechanism that Islamic State values highly, monitors strictly, and maintains rigidly. Islamic State gives outsized focus to education and invests significant resources in its system. Internal documents reveal the organization’s administrative goal of coopting, indoctrinating, and leveraging preexisting educational bureaucracies for its own purposes. Simultaneously, Islamic State’s strategic prioritization of education has led to some of its most ideologically motivated actions. Over the past three years IS made initial concessions that were driven by operational constraints, determined those actions to be insufficient, and then pivoted to bureaucracy and curricula that were ideologically compatible.

Education is a clearly communicated priority of Islamic State. Its propaganda showcases children exposed to this form of indoctrination. Islamic State uses the children to communicate its ideological goals. Islamic State also reveres the children it inculcates, viewing them as more pure and righteous than any adult. This is because they are raised exclusively through IS’s ideology. Neither heretical nor secular forces corrupt them. Instead, the children are developed as mujahideen, knowing only Islamic State’s radical preaching.[xxxii] IS’s shrewd decision-makers guide this highly ideological pursuit. A Quilliam study found that Islamic State studied Nazi as well as Baathist youth organizations to refine its curricula and the design for its infamous “Caliphate Cubs.”[xxxiii]

According to Islamic State, education is the primary method through which governments indoctrinate their citizenry and establish loyalty to the state. It is also the mechanism used to convey mores, values, customs, and principles upon inhabitants. In that way, they write, “the education system is of no less importance than the military sector” – an apparatus revered and exulted by Islamic State – “but actually is greater influence.”[xxxiv]

Islamic State’s approach to education typifies the organization’s shrewd pursuit of authoritarian control towards ideological ends. It is worth noting that Islamic State believes that all governing bodies approach education with similar motivations. In that respect, IS sees its actions as consistent with any other governing body. Yet through its administrative guidelines, Islamic State affirms education as “the foundation on which Islamic society is built.”[xxxv] Education, therefore, is a universal tool that Islam makes exceptional through its application.

As earlier cases show, Islamic State is willing to make significant accommodations to its takfiri-jihadist Islamism when pursuing short term organizational gain. But education - its bureaucracy and its curricula – is vital to Islamic State’s long-term, ideological grand strategy. As IS gained territory and acquired control of preexisting education systems, it had to decide how to handle the educational demands of the people under its control. IS lacked the manpower and resources to build an education system. It solved this predicament by expropriating the education system it acquired through expansion. Ultimately, the transition was significantly more ideological than other aspects of its governance. At first, Islamic State permitted schools to proceed with their scheduled academic year. In Raqqa, Islamic State altered curriculum, purging lesson material of references to Syrian nationalism, Christianity, and subjects including art, music, as well as philosophy.[xxxvi] Reports indicate that when classes started in September, many people were absent from the classrooms. Nevertheless, school continued. Students used their Syrian textbooks, albeit with pages containing blasphemous content ripped from their bindings. In Raqqa, ISIS also printed copies of Saudi textbooks to augment or replace the material they inherited.[xxxvii]

By December 2014, however, Islamic State altered course, closing the schools so as to reeducate the staff.[xxxviii] Islamic State could not fulfill its ideological principles with the status quo. Islamic State decided that drastic reform was needed if the curricula were to serve its long-term goals. In order to justify using the structure and personnel of an education system it found to be heretical, its “Research and Fatwas Issuing Committee” issued a treatise.[xxxix]

The document condemns the existing education system as much as it espouses the necessary benefits of Islamic State education. When indicting Syrian curricula – accusing it of being overrun with jahiliya and external dangers – IS quotes Sayyid Qutb’s brother. It condemns Baathism, socialists, nationalists, and democracy. In short, it condemns every apostate “affiliated” with the Syrian educational system. No reason – even compulsion – justified their participation As such, school closures were necessary. In so doing, Islamic State would “[cut] off the root of disbelief” and preserve the correct religion. Those affiliated with the education system could then repent and “open a new shining page with their Lord, and to be the implements of development and reform in their Muslim society.”[xl]

Islamic State’s efforts to reconcile a pragmatic governance decision – employ the personnel of a system it deems heretical – with its ideology are noteworthy. IS suspended a government service so that it could be retooled to espouse its ideological tenets. It appropriated all existing resources and transformed them. Teachers and staff were trained to teach highly militant, ideological content.[xli] Islamic State published and distributed new textbooks that reflect its ideology.[xlii] In Mosul, Iraq, curricula were delivered to administrators via CDs.[xliii] Six year olds are exposed to the motto of Islamic State – “enduring and expanding” – during gym class.[xliv] In Raqqa, word problems ask children to sum the number of guns and subtract martyrs lost in battle.[xlv] Weapons, including bombs, are brought into classrooms so that children are socialized to them. Writing exercises compel students to imagine familial ties to suicide bombers. These lessons are ubiquitous in Islamic State territory and no accommodations are made. Home schooling is forbidden and teachers have been arrested for practicing outside of IS restrictions.[xlvi] Islamic State is determined to inculcate children under its purview with its takfiri-jihadist Islamist curricula.

In some Syrian territory controlled by Islamic State, secular schools were closed earlier than Fall 2014.[xlvii] Schools only reopened in areas where Islamic State can commit sufficient resources to administer them. Schools remain shuttered in areas the organization deems as having lower tactical, strategic, or organizational priority.[xlviii] In those towns near the periphery, IS’s youth outreach includes “one-off Da’wa events,” requiring fewer resources.[xlix] Where Islamic State does focus on educating the youth, it devotes significant resources. The publication of textbooks, administration of teacher reeducation, monitoring of educators, and IS’s official declarations are driven by its ideological tenets. Youth also find themselves participating in the “Caliphate Cubs” – a regimented program meant to indoctrinate the rising generation, preparing them for violent participation in the caliphate.[l]

None of these decisions have significant near term impact on Islamic State’s organizational strength. Education and youth organizations are labor-intensive enterprises that lack immediate returns on investment. Regardless, Islamic State remains heavily invested in both. Islamic State is investing in children so that it can survive in its more absolutist form generations hence. It is developing a population that will legitimize its ideology, participate in the caliphate’s society, and fight to expand Islamic State power. In that sense, Islamic State’s decisions about education are insulated from pragmatic whims. IS perceives education as an investment for its long-term goals, which are explicitly ideological.

Case Four: Ideological Enforcement - Pragmatic Pursuit of Revolutionary Islamist Goals

In the first two cases, Islamic State seizes opportunities to increase its organizational strength. IS exploits structures, mechanisms, and methods that helped expand its influence, enhance its power, and defend its territory. Put simply, Islamic State’s security and economic actions are not ideologically founded. It’s important to note, however, that those actions advance IS’s long-term ideological goals by enhancing organizational strength. IS approaches security and economics with the shrewd, pragmatic perspective of power politics. The first two cases benefited Islamic State’s immediate goals to build, defend, and empower a governing state. Islamic State’s approach to education is notably different. Ideology and Islamic State’s designs for posterity drive its adolescent programming. As such, the third case highlights IS’s long term goal – and grand strategy – of propagating its takfiri-jihadist brand of Islamist ideology. These three cases contain nuance and exceptions, of course. Neither pragmatism nor ideology is the exclusive motivator of security, economy, or education in the Islamic State. However, the predominant trends are clear.

When one examines Islamic State’s police and judicial enforcement, meanwhile, there are many examples of flexibility and ideological inconsistencies. These provide insight into how the organization navigates its goals along the ideological threshold. Examples reveal Islamic State’s tendency to protect organizational strength and pursue near term goals rather than maintain ideological purity.

Islamic State’s religious police – the male hisbah and female al-khansa[li] – patrol IS controlled population centers, serving as the monitors, enforcers, and manifestations of Islamic State’s religious rule. Their primary mission is to publically convey Islamic State’s policies and identify infractions. Islamic State deploys hisbah members early on when expanding into new territory.[lii] They enforce “mandatory religious observances,”[liii] patrol streets during prayer time, cite people who do not follow IS’s strict rules, and even provide a level of consumer protection.[liv] Hisbah follows procedures to collect, document, and submit infractions to their wilayat leadership on a weekly basis.[lv] A bureaucracy bolsters the efficacy and efficiency of hisbah’s ideological enforcement. The result is a hisbah which is founded in IS’s ideological rules and works to maintain organizational strength.

Impartial enforcement of sharia law is vital to Islamic State’s legitimacy. Its propaganda assures its citizenry that every person – from merchant to caliph – is treated equally under IS rule.[lvi] The appearance of evenhanded treatment through religiously based, strictly enforced guidelines bolsters Islamic State’s credibility while advancing its ideological goal – developing and sustaining a takfiri-jihadist society.

Yet despite the vital role that equitable sharia enforcement serves, Islamic State undermines its legitimacy when valuable members commit infractions. Since 2014, anyone who violates Islamic State’s smoking ban faces lashings,[lvii] jail time,[lviii] and fines.[lix] People who commit multiple infractions are imprisoned and beaten. Yet, when oil technicians and engineers were caught they only received warnings.[lx] Interviews of former fighters and residents reveal cronyism, nepotism, and preferential treatment for Islamic State members. This directly contradicts IS proclamations assuring that “[t]he people are as equal as the teeth of a comb.”[lxi] Other inequities exist. Islamic State’s security services and police interrogate local Syrians who speak with foreign fighters.[lxii] Class divisions exist between locals – who elicit suspicion – and esteemed foreign fighters. Islamic State members call local citizens al-awam, “the commoners.”[lxiii] They treat the population with disdain while enjoying preferential treatment, including better healthcare, sponsored housing, and economic subsidies. In fact, Islamic State proclaims that “God prefers those who fight in jihad over those who sit,” citing Quranic verses and hadith.[lxiv] Courts and clerics also show bias towards its members, countering both Islamist principles and Islamic State’s espousal of egalitarian justice for Sunnis.[lxv]

Drug use is another example in which Islamic State circumvents its own ideological proclamations. What’s more, its position on drugs also shirks broad consensus – or ijma – shared amongst Islamic theorists. Islamic State enables its fighters’ drug use. It participates in the drug trade while proclaiming them haram.[lxvi] Islamic State’s amphetamine of choice is Captagon.[lxvii] Other drugs – including cocaine – have been found throughout recaptured territory, including in the hands of IS leaders.[lxviii] Islamic State’s use of Captagon is another example of the organization’s opportunistic decision making. The drug is readily available throughout the territory it rules; factories exist in Lebanon,[lxix] production has exploded in Syria,[lxx] and drug routes permeate the region. It and similar drugs were used throughout IS’s history, going back to AQI and earlier. The drug helps lower soldiers’ inhibitions so that they can fight with a ferocity that’s absent without them. As such, tactical and operational benefits outweigh Islam’s irrefutable condemnation of drug use.

Islamic State shirks ijma and its own Islamist ideology for reasons other than economic advancement (ie. antiquities trade) and tactical advantages (ie. drug use). IS has issued rulings, often ex post facto, that justify actions that are anathema to ijma. A year after accounts of sex slavery began leaking from ISIS territory, Islamic State issued Fatwa No. 64, justifying the abhorrent acts that IS sold in recruitment pamphlets the year prior.[lxxi] Islamic State also nullified idaa, a lengthy mourning period that must be observed by widows.[lxxii] Instead, the wives of killed fighters are compelled to remarry quickly so that IS can keep up with demand within its internal sex trade.

When Islamic State immolated a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, it not only shirked ijma but also went on to prosecute allies who disagreed with its justification. The propaganda video showing Kasasbeh’s death incited resentment throughout the Muslim world, including within IS-held territory.[lxxiii] Consensus was clear: burning a human to death – particularly a fellow Muslim – was both morally abhorrent and disavowed by clerics. Islamic State responded by affirming the organization’s right to take such action. It posted an edict on Twitter.[lxxiv] When one of its own clerics suggested that those responsible for the pilot’s death should be prosecuted, he was stripped of his authority and put on trial. This was not an outlier event. Islamic State has arrested and killed clerics who challenge its actions.[lxxv] Islamic State’s purge of dissenting clerics has exposed it to criticism from other Islamist organizations.

Assessment: “Pragmatic Takfiris” on the “Ideological Threshold”

By examining Islamic State’s actions in the realms of security, economic, education, and enforcement we uncover a continuum of organizational tendencies. First, it is evident that, when governing, Islamic State relies selectively on ideology. Its prioritization of ideological coherence or purity is dependent upon the area of governance. This evaluation is plastic and shifts based on many independent as well as intervening variables. Broadly speaking, Islamic State currently makes organizationally self-interested, ideologically flexible decisions unless they adversely affect its ideological legitimacy. For example, Islamic State leadership is invested in the ideological coherence of its propaganda, education, training, and (appearance of) judicial enforcement. Conversely, it is less concerned with the ideological provenance related to the economy or security state design. In the latter cases, efficacy is of top priority. This leads to an increased pursuit of practical solutions. Second, a correlation exists between Islamic State’s ideological motivations and organizational strength. Islamic State tends to be pragmatic and accommodating – albeit duplicitously so – when it first expands into territory, lacks a monopoly of violence, or pursues autonomous authority. IS then asserts its ideological rule more forcefully once a threshold of influence is reached. Similarly, a direct correlation also exists between Islamic State’s pragmatic decision-making and existential threats. When IS’s authority is challenged militarily, economically, socially, or politically, it has a tendency to protect organizational strength rather than implement its ideological precepts. Lastly, as decision-making becomes more centralized and comprehensive within its authoritarian total state structure, Islamic State’s rulings tend to become more ideological.

These trends indicate that – barring existential threats – over time, Islamic State tends to become increasingly authoritarian, comprehensive in its governance, and ideological in its decision-making. When Islamic State sufficiently consolidates its authority and achieves a critical level of organizational strength, IS pivots from near-term, practical exploits to its grand strategic ideological pursuits. This should be understood to be Islamic State’s “ideological threshold.”

The four cases reveal a group bent on advancing its takfiri-jihadist Islamist rule through organizational strength, power politics, formal governance, and ideological indoctrination. Islamic State intends to survive and expand its power. With the influence it acquires, it redefines the cultural and religious environment that it governs through compulsion and indoctrination. It is intent on projecting that vision beyond its borders, shifting the paradigm of legitimate Islamic behavior. This long-term strategy motivates Islamic State’s pursuit of near term goals. However, its leadership is keenly aware of the organization’s liabilities. They know it currently lacks the resources, stability, and force projection to pursue its ideological goals at the grand strategic level. They are also aware of the legitimacy vacuum from which it suffers; a critical mass of public support for Islamic State does not exist without significant coercion. As such, IS’s tactical and operational decisions focus on the near term goal of developing sufficient organizational strength and independent governance. Presently, it is only when a decision can provide greater ideological benefits – or serve organization-legitimating goals – that Islamic State make operational decisions based on its ideology.

The cases reveal other significant tendencies. Islamic State reacts quickly and aggressively when its ideological legitimacy is challenged. Whether by issuing fatwa ex poste facto, demeaning other Islamists,[lxxvi] or imprisoning dissenting clerics, Islamic State lashes out in order to protect its bona fides. Similarly, Islamic State enforces strict ideological rules when dealing with societal heterogeneity. Its ethnic cleansing, mass murder, intimidation, and exploitation of various non-Sunni populations – Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, Shia, etc. – is vicious and consistently complemented by religious edict. Meanwhile, it is possible that Islamic State’s treatment of non-Islamic and apostate populations has equal merit across pragmatic and ideological realms, since homogenizing a population decreases the opportunity for alternate power bases or identities to coalesce.

Figure 1.1 Relation between Case Subjects and Islamic State’s “Ideological Threshold”

Based on the cases and correlations identified above, we can anticipate a number of potential actions from Islamic State. These projections assume no intervening variables that would inhibit organizational goals. This is done in order to highlight Islamic State’s goals and strategies. As such, we can posit that without significant, sustained threats to its organizational strength or ideology:

  • Islamic State will develop authoritarian control over all segments of governance. Its goal is a caliphate administered as a total state.
  • Islamic State will broaden its education and youth organization training programs. Its goal will be the socialization and legitimization of its takfiri-jihadist Islamism.
  • Islamic State will broaden its deference campaign to children who are raised within its sphere of influence. Those raised on its curricula and ideological training will be granted fast tracks to authority, bypassing foreign fighters as well as local allies. This will position Islamic State for more aggressive ideological actions in the medium-term.
  • Islamic State will expand its sharia enforcement and judicial system. One can expect that the organization will publish and consolidate further rulings – as well as punishments – as opportunities present themselves.
  • Islamic State will continue to homogenize the religious, cultural, tribal, sectarian and – eventually – linguistic terrain of its governed territory.
  • Islamic State will continue to broadcast its takfiri-jihadist Islamist propaganda within and beyond its governed domain. It will increase its indictment of apostates and attempt to mobilize repentance, retribution, as well as conversion campaigns.

If Islamic State attains its “ideological threshold” across significant realms of governance, we can further expect:

  • Islamic State will decrease most remaining vestiges of delegation or local autonomy in its governed territory. Nearly all decisions will derive from top-tier leadership or members reporting directly to the authoritarian regime.
  • Islamic State will increase its force and threat projection into neighboring countries as well as dar al-harb.

As al-Adnani’s audio message from May indicates, Islamic State may have begun a shift in policy and organizational design.[lxxvii] Its dissuasion of foreign fighter flows into Syria and dismissal of territorial designs are the outgrowths of existential threats. Al-Adnani’s audio message betrays Islamic State’s pursuit of survival over immediate commitment to its ideology. This may indicate the leadership’s strategic patience as well as a priority of organizational survival. It may also presage Islamic State’s pursuit of more successful ideological posturing in the future. Regardless, this fact must not be lost amongst news of Islamic State’s latest struggles: the organization and its leadership are persistent. When the opportunity arises – given or earned – they will continue to pursue their authoritarian, ideological goals.

For over a decade, Islamic State and its precursor organizations have experienced multiple windows of opportunity, devoid of sustained threats. They have seized these moments to assess and alter their methods, proving their adaptability to challenges. Today, Islamic State’s organizational pragmatism and learned resiliency makes it a cunning and elusive adversary. As such, it is useful to view Islamic State as any other self-interested organization invested in its own survival. This perspective helps dispel the myth of IS’s unique power. It also increases the breadth of options that may destabilize Islamic State’s organization and diminish its ability to cross its ideological threshold. Ultimately, Islamic state seeks to grow its influence, with the goal of enabling the promotion and projection of its ideology. A strategy to disrupt and destroy Islamic State’s organization must be multi-faceted, adaptable, and sustained. Intelligence and policy apparatuses would do well to research, analyze, identify, and monitor IS leadership’s ideological thresholds for governance. When we understand Islamic State’s requisite capabilities in order pivot to more aggressive, overt ideological decision-making, we gain a useful metric for success as well as deeper understanding of the threat we face.

End Notes

[i] William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York City: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 127.

[ii] VICE News, The Islamic State (Full Length), 2014,

[iii] Christoph Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Spiegel Online, April 18, 2015, sec. International,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear : The Politics of Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 12,

[vi] Reuter, “The Terror Strategist.”

[vii] Aymenn al-Tamimi, “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence,” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (July 21, 2015): 121,

[viii] Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (Doubleday, 2015), 291.

[ix] Michael Weiss, “How ISIS Picks Its Suicide Bombers,” The Daily Beast, November 16, 2015,

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “The Isis Papers: A Masterplan for Consolidating Power,” The Guardian, December 7, 2015, sec. World news,

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Erika Solomon, “Isis Inc: How Oil Fuels the Jihadi Terrorists,” Financial Times, October 14, 2015,; Kevin Sullivan, “Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Spoils for the Rulers, Terror for the Ruled,” Washington Post, Washington Post, (October 1, 2015),; Ben Hubbard, “ISIS Promise of Statehood Falling Far Short, Ex-Residents Say,” The New York Times, December 1, 2015,

[xiv] Solomon, “Isis Inc.”

[xv] Ben Van Heuvelen, “Armed with Intel, U.S. Strikes Curtail IS Oil Sector,” Iraq Oil Report, accessed December 30, 2015,

[xvi] “The Isis Papers.”

[xvii] Nour Malas and Maria Abi-Habib, “Islamic State Economy Runs on Extortion, Oil Piracy in Syria, Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2014, sec. World,

[xviii] Annia Ciezadlo, “The Most Unconventional Weapon in Syria: Wheat,” The Washington Post, December 18, 2015,

[xix] “The Isis Papers.”

[xx] Ceren Kenar and Ragip Soylu, “Why Are Russian Engineers Working at an Islamic State-Controlled Gas Plant in Syria?,” Foreign Policy, accessed February 10, 2016,

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] “The Isis Papers.”

[xxiii] Matthew Rosenberg Kulish Nicholas, Steven Lee Myers, and Matthew Rosenberg, “Predatory Islamic State Wrings Money From Those It Rules,” The New York Times, November 29, 2015,

[xxiv] Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Phil Stewart, “Exclusive: Seized Documents Reveal Islamic State’s Department of ‘War Spoils,’” Reuters, December 28, 2015,

[xxv] Holly Ellyatt, “ISIS ‘Making Millions’ by Gaming Forex Markets,” CNBC, March 3, 2016,

[xxvi] Mitchell Prothero, “Airstrikes Starting to Take Toll on Islamic State’s Money Flow,” Stars and Stripes, accessed March 4, 2015,

[xxvii] “Small Army of ISIS Tax Collectors Keeping Cash Flowing into Terrorists’ Hands,” Text.Article,, (December 16, 2015),

[xxviii] Ana Swanson, “How the Islamic State Makes Its Money,” The Washington Post, November 18, 2015,; David Francis and Dan De Luce, “Hitting the Islamic State’s Oil Isn’t Enough,” Foreign Policy, accessed November 18, 2015,

[xxix] Mara Revkin, “ISIS’ Social Contract,” Foreign Affairs, February 25, 2016,

[xxx] Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, First Edition edition (New York, NY: Regan Arts., 2015), 234 (LOC 3394); Kulish, Myers, and Rosenberg, “Predatory Islamic State Wrings Money From Those It Rules.”

[xxxi] Jenna Lefler, “ISW Blog: Life Under ISIS in Mosul,” ISW Blog, July 28, 2014,

[xxxii] Mark Townsend, “How Islamic State Is Training Child Killers in Doctrine of Hate,” The Guardian, March 5, 2016, sec. World news,

[xxxiii] Maajid Nawaz, “The ISIS Army That’s Still Unborn,” The Daily Beast, March 16, 2016,

[xxxiv] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Islamic State Treatise on the Syrian Education System: Full Text, Translation & Analysis,” Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, accessed March 21, 2016,

[xxxv] “The Isis Papers.”

[xxxvi] “IS Instills Its Own Curriculum in A-Raqqa Schools,” Syria Direct, accessed October 12, 2015,

[xxxvii] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, 136.

[xxxviii] Al-Tamimi, “Islamic State Treatise on the Syrian Education System.”

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] Sullivan, “Life in the ‘Islamic State.’”

[xlii] Aaron Y. Zelin, “New Release from The Islamic State: ‘Textbooks From the First Sharī’ah Class,’” JIHADOLOGY: A Clearinghouse for Jihādī Primary Source Material, Original Analysis, and Translation Service, October 30, 2015,

[xliii] Niqash, “Back to School in Mosul: The ISIS Curriculum,” The Daily Beast, October 29, 2015,

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Fazel Hawramy and Kareem Shaheen, “Life under Isis in Raqqa and Mosul: ‘We’re Living in a Giant Prison’,” The Guardian, December 9, 2015, sec. World news,

[xlvi] Michael Weiss, “Inside ISIS’s Torture Brigades,” The Daily Beast, November 17, 2015,

[xlvii] Maria Abi-Habib, “The Child Soldiers Who Escaped Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2014, sec. World,

[xlviii] Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds, “ISIS Governance in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, 17, accessed November 5, 2015,

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Mushreq Abbas, “The ‘Caliphate Cubs’ of IS - Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East,” Al-Monitor, accessed June 5, 2015,

[li] Sarah Birke et al., “How ISIS Rules,” The New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015,

[lii] Weiss and Hassan, ISIS, 230 (LOC 3327).

[liii] Warrick, Black Flags, 288.

[liv] Weiss, “Inside ISIS’s Torture Brigades.”

[lv] Caris and Reynolds, “ISIS Governance in Syria,” 16.

[lvi] Mara Revkin and Ahmad Mhidi, “Quitting ISIS,” Foreign Affairs, May 1, 2016,

[lvii] Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, “Inside the Islamic State ‘capital’: No End in Sight to Its Grim Rule,” The Guardian, accessed February 24, 2015,

[lviii] Liz Sly, “The Islamic State Is Failing at Being a State,” The Washington Post, December 24, 2014,

[lix] Pamela Engel, “ISIS Has Found a Huge Moneymaking Method That’s ‘Impervious to Sanctions and Air Raids,’” Business Insider, accessed December 3, 2015,

[lx] Hubbard, “ISIS Promise of Statehood Falling Far Short, Ex-Residents Say.”

[lxi] Revkin and Mhidi, “Quitting ISIS.”

[lxii] al-Raqqawi, “Inside the Islamic State ‘capital.’”

[lxiii] Hamza Hendawi, “Islamic State’s Double Standards Sow Growing Disillusion,” The Big Story, accessed January 18, 2016,

[lxiv] Ibid.

[lxv] Revkin, “ISIS’ Social Contract.”

[lxvi] Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2014,

[lxvii] Peter Holley, “The Tiny Pill Fueling Syria’s War and Turning Fighters into Superhuman Soldiers,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2015,

[lxviii] Joakim Medin, “ISIS Fighters Using Cocaine for ‘Courage in Battle,’” Mail Online, January 6, 2015,

[lxix] Paul Kan, “This Is Your Jihad on Drugs,” War on the Rocks, March 7, 2016,

[lxx] Holley, “The Tiny Pill Fueling Syria’s War and Turning Fighters into Superhuman Soldiers.”

[lxxi] Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Phil Stewart, “Exclusive: Islamic State Ruling Aims to Settle Who Can Have Sex with Female Slaves,” Reuters, December 29, 2015,

[lxxii] Azadeh Moaveni, “ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape,” The New York Times, November 21, 2015,

[lxxiii] Joanna Paraszczuk, “‘Mosul Eye’ Claims City ‘Quietly Slipping Away’ From IS,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, February 13, 2015, sec. Tracking Islamic State,

[lxxiv] Tom Perry, “Islamic State Punishes Cleric Who Objected to Pilot’s Killing: Monitor,” Reuters, February 6, 2015,

[lxxv] Hendawi, “Islamic State’s Double Standards Sow Growing Disillusion.”

[lxxvi] Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP Says It Wanted to Debate the Islamic State,” The Long War Journal, accessed April 19, 2016,

[lxxvii] “TSG IntelBrief: A Message from the Islamic State | The Soufan Group,” The Soufan Group, May 23, 2016,


About the Author(s)

Craig Noyes is an open-source analyst who focuses primarily on sectarianism, civil-military relations, effectiveness of violence, and Levantine affairs. He is employed by Boston College.


Outlaw 09

Tue, 07/26/2016 - 3:04am

Do not know whether to applaud or cry..........finally an author that uses the correct term when referring to QJBR, then AQI, then IS.....from the 1990s through to the present they have always been Takfirists....just as is AQ.

A major difference that explains the tense relationship to the Salafist jihadist who actually led the initial Iraqi Sunni insurgency and now in Syria with JaN (AQ) and the moderate anti Assad forces FSA.

I was saying this while in Baqubah, Diyala and at Abu Ghraib but no one would listen especially national level intelligence.....

Actually a good article worth reading...

BTW...the author indicates the drift of IS towards an authoritarian rule..I would go a step further and state the right wing Takfirist Islamic ideology is by nature "fascist" when laid out as a governing concept.

I would also say that we are in fact seeing a kind of "Islamic reformation" ongoing between the extreme right wing of Islam which is a "traditionalist view of Islam" and the more "modernist" secular view of Islam say seen in the Syrian FSA...

BTW the other article posted today to SWJ concerning the shift of IS to guerrilla warfare...I would argue that they have always been in a form of guerrilla warfare since the 1990s and their sudden land grab was a move to Phase Three guerrilla warfare and now while losing some territory they simply reverted back to a Phase Two guerrilla war...

Mao always envisioned this to be possible in his Three Phase concept.......