Winter 2016
Number 30

How the Islamic State Governs

By
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

No jihadist enterprise has placed as much emphasis on the statehood mantra as the Islamic State, which in its current form not only claims to be a state but also the caliphate, to which all Muslims must pledge allegiance. But what is the system underlying this project? How close does it come to actually being deemed a state? Perhaps most importantly, is this project sustainable in the long run?

The answers to those questions are essential to understanding how the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, organizes, rules and enforces its puritanical, violent brand of fundamentalist Islam across a vast swathe of today’s Middle East. They are also the key to formulating a cogent Western response to today’s most significant global terrorist threat.

Caliphate and complexity

Unlike most other prior and current jihadist projects, the Islamic State has actual control of a large swathe of contiguous territory spanning the borders of two countries: Iraq and Syria. It was this “breaking of the borders,” as the Islamic State has termed it, with its attendant control of major cities such as Mosul and Raqqa, that provided the group with the basis for its declaration of a caliphate on June 29th, 2014.

That announcement marked a significant step in the evolution of the Islamic State’s administration of territory. The system now is ostensibly akin to that of a conventional government, with numerous diwans (government departments) covering most aspects of daily life in accordance with the Islamic State’s vision of society. These diwans exist at the provincial level (in each of the Islamic State’s declared wilayas, which has its own wali or provincial governor), the intra-provincial level and at a larger regional level—and their edicts cut across all three levels.

For example, the greater Diwan al-Ta’aleem (education department) has the ability to issue general directives on school curricula and academic semester times. Thus, in late August 2014, its first general directive outlawed the teaching of subjects such as music and philosophy, while ensuring removal of all favorable references to any concepts of nationalism, democracy and interest on money.(1)

Later that year, another general directive from the Diwan ordered the repentance of teachers and put a definitive stop to the teaching of all the old educational programs—a move that was clearly a response to local agitation against the Islamic State’s education reforms. Its effect was profound; until the teachers (and by extension other education administrative staff) who had worked in the prior system completed the repentance process, schools could not function and had to remain closed.(2)

As justification for this directive, the statement cited an investigation by the Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth into the education system under the Syrian regime in particular. The Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth (the Islamic State’s fatwa and research department) is another Diwan that has emerged since the declaration of the caliphate. Besides issuing textbooks at a macro level for the “re-education” and repentance of teachers, the department is also responsible for promulgating justifications for, among other things, making sex slaves of female Yazidis and other non-Muslim groups, as well as high-profile symbolic acts such as the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot that was released on video in February 2015.(3)

Both the Diwan al-Ta’aleem and Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth exist at the provincial and local level, though their names in documents are not always consistent. That is, the term diwan might be used interchangeably with idara (administration), markaz (center) or hay’at (committee). It has been up to the provincial and regional manifestations of the Diwan al-Ta’aleem to organize the repentance sessions and determine location as appropriate, in addition to deciding on school registration fees for students within their areas.

Notably, the Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth differs between the provincial and greater level, a fact outlined in a set of fatwas obtained by the author from Raqqa province. Bearing the “Wilayat al-Raqqa” stamp, these differ in linguistic style and argumentation from prior known fatwas issued in the name of the Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth. They are cruder linguistically, and lack the same level of elaborate citations of Islamic jurisprudence. According to Islamism expert Cole Bunzel, the fatwas are likely the work of a lower-level provincial functionary regurgitating what he knows to be the opinions of the greater Diwan.(4)

More generally, one can envision a model whereby the greater Diwans determine general outlines and functions, whereas their regional and local branches have autonomy on some specifics. Thus, the Diwan al-Hisba is responsible for the enforcement of Islamic morality in public, while also ensuring proper business practices (consumer protection) and financial transparency in accounting and budgets. However, penalties for violations of regulations do not appear to be entirely uniform across all provinces. This is likely due to provincial autonomy in being able to set levels of fines and imprisonment for more minor infractions. However, in keeping with the Islamic State’s vision of Islamic law punishments (hudud) for the worst violations, practices such as the death penalty for blasphemy and cutting off the hands of thieves are constant across the provinces.

In this context, there also appear to be provincial Sharia Committees that are responsible for oversight of the activities of the provincial Diwans on matters pertaining to religion. These committees can issue their own pertinent directives for the provinces as required. A case in point was a mobilization call to jihad made in October 2015 by the Aleppo province Sharia Committee in response to an offensive spearheaded by IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, which threatened to break the Islamic State siege of the Kweiris airbase.(5)

Finally, the greater Diwans seem to be subordinate to what have been traditionally recognized as the highest councils of the Islamic State. Thus, all the greater Diwans concerning religious affairs ultimately answer to the Islamic State’s highest Sharia Council, while the Diwan al-Jund (Soldiers Department). There also exists a body known as the General Supervisory Committee that can issue directives and notifications to all administrative bodies in all Islamic State provinces—suggesting that it is probably linked to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his deputies. For instance, that body is responsible for a December 2014 directive banning GPS and Apple products with built-in GPS,(6) as well as a general amnesty call for military deserters in October 2015.(7)

As all this suggests, the system of administration implemented by the Islamic State is complex, and the understanding of it is probably still incomplete. Indeed, some known bodies have roles and/or positions in the bureaucracy that remain unclear. For example, the Islamic State’s Hijra Committee is tasked with financial support to those desiring to migrate to the caliphate (hijra), provided they know someone within the Islamic State who can vouch for them. However, it is not known how that particular committee relates to other administrative bodies within the Islamic State.

That said, the announcement of the caliphate represents a clear evolution toward greater sophistication, in contrast to the initial stages of the group’s expansion into Syria in 2013, where administration consisted of a few declared “emirates” in captured towns. This strategy meant the ISIS presence was thinly spread and vulnerable to coordinated attack from multiple factions—something that eventually prompted its withdrawal from much of northwestern Syria and Deir az-Zor province in early 2014 amid infighting with Syrian rebels, giving rise to a new focus of consolidating territory around Raqqa city and expanding from there.

State or not?

When the Islamic State’s forebears first laid claim to statehood in the form of the controversial announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, following the death of al-Qaeda commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, they had little to support the notion of being an actual state. Even with the announcement of cabinets of ministries in 2007 and 2009, there was nothing to show that these departments were anything more than names on paper. Now, as outlined above, the bureaucratic system is more complex than ever before, and the Islamic State attempts to reinforce its statehood image on an almost daily basis with high-quality visual propaganda centered around what researcher Charlie Winter calls the concept of “utopia.”(8) Unsurprisingly, many observers have concluded that the Islamic State deserves to be called a state.

Nevertheless, a look at internal documents reveals a more nuanced picture. Appreciating these nuances avoids unnecessarily promoting Islamic State propaganda, while providing a realistic framework for assessing the prospects of the Islamic State’s future viability.

Consider the realm of public services, which comes under the Islamic State label of Diwan al-Khidamat. To assert that the “Islamic State provides services” may imply that it has its own teams of workers in the realms of water and electricity provision who can help serve the needs of the local populaces. In fact, Islamic State documents show that in Iraq especially, co-optation of existing service provision structures is an important element of the claim to provide services. In this context, it should be noted that co-optation of prior personnel and infrastructure is affirmed as a key principle for the administration of development projects in an internal “masterplan” text called “Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State.”(9)

Once control is consolidated over a new area, a notification is generally issued ordering those who worked in various service administration bodies to return to work under threat of confiscation of their homes. Therefore, what is advertised in Mosul as the Diwan al-Khidamat engaging in roadwork and cleaning bridges is actually the same municipal office that previously existed under the Iraqi government. At the same time, it may well be the case that the Islamic State’s anti-corruption platform means that the quality of roadwork represents an improvement on the previous status quo, even if the same personnel are involved.

Even so, it is clear that electricity provision in what is now Islamic State territory was better in the days of the Assad regime, and under the Iraqi government. In Mosul in particular, the Iraqi government initially cut the city off from the national grid after it fell to the Islamic State, resulting in the fact that for many months its residents were forced to rely on private generators. This state of affairs did not change until March 2015, when the Iraqi government administration in Ninawa province allowed for some electricity to be supplied to the city via the Mosul Dam. Similarly, in Raqqa, the Islamic State is able to supply electricity as a public service via control of dams along the Euphrates, but it is at much weaker capacity than during the days of the regime.

In other realms, Islamic State administration demonstrates much more significant failings, most notably in its Diwan al-Siha (health department), which—like the services department—must rely considerably on co-optation of existing structures if it is to function. The Islamic State’s appeals for muhajireen (foreigners) to come to aid the health service derive in large part from the problem of “brain drain,” since medical professionals and medical teaching staff from Mosul University have fled Islamic State territory. In May 2015, a general notification was issued for medical professionals to return within one month or face confiscation of their homes.(10)

Many problems can be traced back to the Islamic State’s own regulations, such as banning the importation of medical products of Iranian origin, requiring all new pharmacies and clinics to obtain licenses from the Diwan al-Siha to be opened, and an irrational insistence on gender segregation that means female patients must in the first instance seek out female doctors for women’s medical issues (even as the Islamic State’s Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth itself has acknowledged the shortage of female doctors in its territory). To be sure, the Islamic State has tried to respond to manpower problems by getting Mosul’s medical colleges up and running to accept both male and female students, and opening another medical college in Raqqa, but it is doubtful that these initiatives can adequately compensate.

Education represents what is perhaps the greatest field of innovation for the Islamic State. This has entailed devising a whole new series of textbooks as part of its reform program for schools, encompassing topics such as mathematics, English, Arabic language, geography, history, Islamic jurisprudence and sharia politics. However, the teaching staff is largely the same as that which existed previously, having undergone repentance in order to be permitted to teach within the confines of the Islamic State’s ideology. It is also interesting to note the continued functioning of parts of Mosul University, some of whose faculties were closed down by the Islamic State. Despite the “breaking the borders” narrative, it is clear from application forms for the university this academic year that it could only accept Iraqi students, since the applications required Iraqi ID cards and exam grades (including bonus marks from French language studies) followed the Iraqi system of examination of high school students.(11) Of the colleges that have been permitted to function, some of the technical and engineering colleges have nonetheless been unable to open their doors this year, meaning that admitted students had to be given the opportunity to transfer to other colleges.

In short, the answer to the question of whether the Islamic State is actually a state lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the bureaucracy is ostensibly comprehensive and—in terms of the implementation of administration—represents a significant advance from prior years. Nor should one overlook aspects where that bureaucracy might represent an improvement over the previous status quo. Indeed, perhaps the most significant advantage conveyed by the Islamic State’s administration in Syria is a sense of order to people’s lives, particularly in towns that had previously been ruled by multiple rebel factions, giving rise to lawlessness and corruption.

Is the Islamic State sustainable?

Assessing the sustainability of the Islamic State project requires examining multiple angles of the contemporary problem.

One is the question of finances; there is little evidence of a looming internal economic collapse, at least at present. On account of the wide range of the Islamic State’s bureaucracy, there are multiple avenues for revenue in the form of taxation and extortion, whether from the transit of goods, sanitation services, school registration fees, electricity usage fees or confiscation of illicit goods, among other avenues. So long as there is cash flow between the territories of the Islamic State and the outside world, there is no reason to suppose that revenue through taxation will completely dry up and trigger a collapse.

That said, it is possible to curtail the Islamic State’s economic viability. A significant step in this direction was made recently by the Iraqi government, which in August 2015 officially suspended all direct salary payments to teachers and other government workers under Islamic State auspices.(12) Instead, the government has ordered the payments to be stored up in accounts.

The direct payments provided a significant source of parasitic taxation for the Islamic State, and subsequent developments suggest that it will be difficult for the group to compensate for this loss of income. For example, instead of printing new textbooks for students in Mosul to use at the beginning of the new academic year, the Islamic State has required students to get the books printed themselves or purchase them from shops at an additional cost.(13) Further, Dhu al-Qarnain had ordered the academic year to begin on September 1, 2015, but that was delayed throughout most Islamic State territory by more than a month. These problems have undoubtedly arisen in part on account of complications from the end of Iraqi government payment of salaries.

Much has been made of oil as a source of financial income for the Islamic State, but the extent of revenue appears to be greatly exaggerated. A leaked budget obtained by this author covering the period from late December 2014 until late January 2015 showed that average daily oil well income to the provincial Islamic State treasury of Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria—the Islamic State’s richest holdings for fossil fuels—was a little under $66,500.(14) Extrapolation suggests that the estimates of millions of dollars a day in income from oil are exaggerated, particularly as no accounting tends to be made of who obtains how much from the revenues generated within the entire industry. As Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State makes clear, the oil fields and the infrastructure to exploit them are under Islamic State control, but one need not have an allegiance to the Islamic State to purchase oil from the fields and then refine and sell it inside or outside Islamic State territory. In other words, refinery, transportation and final sale are left to civilians, who need not even reside inside the Islamic State.

Despite evidence of some financial and economic hardship, an internal rebellion with the power to destroy the Islamic State is at this point a remote prospect. The Islamic State bureaucracy has set up a rigid security apparatus in the form of the Diwan al-Amn (security apparatus) that has proven itself efficient at cracking down on dissidents and spies—a deterrent reinforced by Islamic State propaganda of brutal executions of such individuals, a message that is aimed as much if not more at internal audiences than the outside world. The sense of order and efficient administration of judicial justice brought by the Islamic State in Syria in particular have also helped dampen the prospects of revolt, while the Islamic State’s Diwan al-Asha’ir (tribal affairs department) plays on intra and inter-tribal relations to prevent a repeat of the Sahwa tribal phenomenon in the days of the Iraq War that rolled back the Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq.

Hard choices

Dismantling the Islamic State bureaucracy will require militarily destroying it on the ground, but at the present time the anti-Islamic State coalition is unlikely to find the local forces that can do the requisite groundwork in the heartlands of its territories. Continued air strikes are certainly desirable, but stepped-up aerial bombardment alone is unlikely to break the overall stalemate between the Islamic State and its enemies.

Unfortunately, a large-scale, long-term ground commitment may be the only option if the goal is to degrade the Islamic State. However, the legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as dysfunctional partisan politics, are major obstacles to realizing the willpower for such undertakings.

Appendix: Table of Notable Diwans

Diwan al-Ta’aleem - Education

Diwan al-Khidamat - Public services

Diwan al-Hisba - Public morality, consumer protection, financial transparency

Diwan al-Da’wa wa al-Masajid - Mosque affairs and religious outreach

Diwan al-‘Eftaa wa al-Buhuth - Fatwas, research into religious controversies

Diwan al-Qada wa al-Mazalim - Judicial matters: Islamic court

Diwan al-Siha - Healthcare

Diwan al-Zakat wa al-Sadaqat - Zakat taxation and distribution to the poor

Diwan al-Zara’a - Agriculture, environment

Diwan al-Amn - Internal security and intelligence gathering

Diwan al-Asha’ir - Tribal affairs

Diwan al-‘Ilam - Media

Diwan al-Jund - Military affairs

Diwan al-Rikaz - Oil and gas, antiquities, etc.

Diwan Bayt al-Mal - Finances

Diwan al-Alaqat al-Aama - Public relations

Diwan al-Wilaya - Provincial administration/wali’s office

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is the Jihad-Intel research fellow at the Middle East Forum and the Rubin Research Fellow at the Rubin Center of the IDC Herzliya. He has testified before the UK House of Commons Defence Committee on Iraq and ISIS, and more recently has briefed the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the Syrian civil war.


1.    Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State’s Educational Regulations in Raqqa Province,” personal website, August 28, 2014, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2014/08/the-islamic-state-educational-regulat.... This edict was also applied elsewhere.

2.    Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Archive of Islamic State Administrative Documents,” personal website, January 27, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2015/01/archive-of-islamic-state-administrati..., Specimen Z.

3.    Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Islamic State Justification for Burning Alive the Jordanian Pilot: Translation and Analysis,” personal website, February 4, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2015/02/islamic-state-justification-for-burni...

4.    Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Fatwas on Jihad and Sabaya,” Jihadology, September 25, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/17879/the-archivist-unseen-islamic-state-fatw...

5.    Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: ‘Go Forth, Lightly and Heavily Armed’: New Mobilization Calls by the Islamic State in Aleppo Province,” Jihadology, October 30, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/18047/the-archivist-go-forth-lightly-and-heav...

6.    Al-Tamimi, “Archive of Islamic State Administrative Documents,” Specimen X.

7.    Ibid., Specimen 9I.

8.    “To its Citizens, ISIS also Shows a Softer Side,” Vocativ, March 20, 2015 (http://www.vocativ.com/world/isis-2/to-its-citizens-isis-also-shows-a-so...)

9.    Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State—Full Text and Translation,” personal website, December 7, 2015 (http://www.aymennjawad.org/18215/principles-in-the-administration-of-the...)

10.  Al-Tamimi, “Archive of Islamic State Administrative Documents,” Specimen 5I.

11.  Ibid., Specimen 8G.

12.  E.g., “Anbar council: some employees of the governorate will receive their salaries within days,” al-Sumaria News, August 17, 2015, http://www.alsumaria.tv/news/143620/%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84...

13.  “Extremists Release New School Textbooks, Curriculum in Mosul,” Niqash, October 29, 2015, http://www.niqash.org/en/articles/society/5148/Extremists-Release-New-Sc...

14.  Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Financial Accounts for Deir az-Zor Province,” Jihadology, October 5, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/17916/the-archivist-unseen-islamic-state-financial