"Without Us, There Would Be No Islamic State:" The Role of Civilian Employees in the Caliphate.

AuthorBamber, Matthew

In its state-building project, the Islamic State had to rely extensively on civilian employees to staff its governing institutions. But despite the importance of these civilian employees to the Islamic State, there has been relatively little scholarship published on their role, and there has been a lack of understanding of the different types of employees. Interviews with 43 former Islamic State civilian employees shed light on the two distinct categories of Islamic State employees: those who became full members of the group (muba'yain) and those who did not (munasirin). There are significant differences in how these two categories were treated by the Islamic State, the positions they were able to fill, the financial benefits they received, and the processes through which they joined and left Islamic State employment. The anecdotal evidence suggests that civilian Islamic State employees in specialist occupations or who were particularly useful to the group had greater latitude to push back against the Islamic State or in other words had a greater degree of moral agency. Understanding the nuances is important in assessing the culpability of the Islamic State's civilian workers and the danger they may pose in the future.

"Without us, there would be no Islamic State "

- Civilian employee in the Islamic State's Public Services Office in Raqqa, Syria (1)

Between 2014-2019, the Islamic State undertook an ambitious governance project in Iraq and Syria that attempted to replicate and mimic the functions, institutions, and structure of contemporary nation-states. At its peak, the Islamic State's state comprised an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers (an area equivalent to the size of Portugal) and the group governed the lives of eight million civilians residing in its territory. (2) The experiences of civilians living in Islamic State-controlled territory varied widely. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians fled the Islamic State's territory as soon as they could, (3) many of those civilians who remained engaged in diverse forms of everyday resistance against their Islamic State occupiers, (4) while an unknown number of civilians were the victims of the group's systematic mass killings, rape, and torture policies. (5)

However, this article focuses on a group of persons who have received little attention but played a key role in the development of the Islamic State: local civilian employees of the group. These Iraqi and Syrian civilians were employed by one of the Islamic State's federal or provincial governing institutions for a specific role and in return received a salary, as well as frequently other financial and material bonuses. However, the Islamic State's civilian employees did not necessarily pledge allegiance to the group nor did they necessarily become members. But taken as a whole, civilian employees were fundamental to the operation of the Islamic State's state; they formed the majority of employees that staffed the vast number of governing institutions that the Islamic State created during the first years of its rule.

It is safe to assume there are many thousands of surviving former civilian employees of the Islamic State. They represent a potentially significant challenge. Many civilian employees presumably remain in their communities and represent a potential workforce for any future iterations of the Islamic State. However, significant numbers have also been detained in Syria and Iraq, with little transitional justicea or reintegration processes in place. (6) According to Human Rights Watch, Iraqi civilian employees affiliated with the Islamic State have been "subject to prosecution for their role in aiding or providing support to a terrorist organization." (7) Courts in northeast Syria run under the auspices of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria have distinguished between civilian and armed membership of the Islamic State. Sentences for civilian employees are one to two years of imprisonment instead of five to 10 years. (8) However, up until 2021, only 8,000 Syrians had been prosecuted in these courts. It is estimated that it would take at least another 13 years to prosecute the Syrians who are in detention in these camps, without even considering the Iraqis or other foreign persons currently detained in northeast Syria. (9)

This article first provides an overview of the evolving role of civilian employees in the Islamic State's attempt to build a state, with the group becoming less reliant on them as the caliphate project started to collapse. It then secondly details the qualitative differences between those employees who were also members of the Islamic State and those who were not. This article then thirdly examines how civilian employees joined and left the Islamic State. The degree of culpability of the Islamic State's civilian workforce in its crimes should be a key question for prosecutors. The fourth section of the article examines the ability of civilian employees to push back against the Islamic State, or in other words, their degree of moral agency. The fifth and final section outlines some conclusions.

The article is primarily based on interviews that the author personally conducted with 43 former Islamic State civilian employees in Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, who worked for the Islamic State for at least three months between 2014-2019. A database of primary governing documents released by the Islamic State's provincial governing institutions are used as supporting evidence. (b )These interviews were conducted as part of a larger doctoral project investigating the history, effectiveness, and internal variation within the Islamic State's governance project. (c)

It is important to add a caveat to this article's findings. Interviewees may have played down their involvement with the Islamic State and played up the degree to which they were coerced to work for the group. Additionally, they could suffer from recall bias as the interviews took place up to two years after the recapture of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. There are, however, some factors that bolster confidence in the findings. Firstly, all interviewees were assured that their identities would be kept anonymous and none were interviewed in detention settings. Further, interviewees were located through fixers personally trusted by the interviewee or through the network of the author. Finally, as part of his wider doctoral project, the author interviewed an additional 73 former Islamic State members and ordinary civilians who resided in Islamic State-controlled territory and has coded more than 1,000 internal Islamic State governing documents. These additional interviews and governing documents have been used to verify, as much as possible, the testimony of the civilian employees and to disregard those claims that seem to be clear fabrications.

(1): The Changing Role of Civilian Employees in the Islamic State

Although the Islamic State has a two-decade history of governance and state-building in Iraq, (10) its state-building project between 2014-2019 was by far its most extensive and lengthy. The Islamic State's territorial control ebbed and flowed over time, but at its peak in 2015, its state stretched across an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers and it governed a population of around eight million Iraqi and Syrian residents.

The Islamic State had a clear vision of its state structure and it closely resembled those of contemporary nation-states. The Islamic State's state was composed of a mixture of federal and provincial institutions, as evidenced by both a video that the Islamic State released in 2016 explaining its state structure and internal Islamic State governing documents. (11) At the federal level, the head of the Islamic State was the 'caliph who acted as the executive and was tasked with upholding religion in the state and ensuring that all governance was aligned with the group's conception of sharia law. The caliph was supported in these tasks by a Shura Council, a council of six to 12 clerics, who picked the new caliph if required. The Delegated Committee was a legislative body of the most senior Islamic State operatives, fluctuating between five and nine members, who communicated and implemented laws and oversaw all provinces of the Islamic State and its associated offices and committees.

At the provincial level, the Islamic State divided the entirety of Syria and Iraq into 19 provinces that approximately aligned with the previous governorate boundaries of the Iraqi and Syrian states. Within each province, the caliph appointed a governor who was in charge of the running and security of the province but who was ultimately answerable to the Delegated Committee. The Islamic State envisioned having 14 ministry offices in each province under the oversight of the governor. Alongside these provincial institutions, the Islamic State had a further six specialized offices and committees that included a specific office for both its media operations and the administration of incoming foreign members.

Although the Islamic State only controlled 13 of its planned 19 provinces and its effectiveness in implementing its state varied, the Islamic State did establish a large number of governing institutions in some of its provinces, including specific ministries and offices for healthcare, education, taxes, public services, agriculture, real estate, judiciary, 'Islamic' police, and security, among many others. (12 )In those provinces such as Nineveh and Raqqa where the Islamic State faced less armed resistance during the initial stages of its takeover and controlled for longer periods of time, it managed to establish, for a limited period of time, this full array of governing institutions. However, in provinces such as Homs, Kirkuk, and Aleppo where the Islamic State only had intermittent control and its takeover attempts were to a greater...

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