Even if war is not always good for business, it is at least a business. Whether dealing in arms, antiquities, oil, grain, taxes or international aid, the Islamic State is building the basis for the sort of exploitative economy whose inequities and corruption (ironically) helped its star rise among the poor and discontented.
In addition to the tens of thousands of full- and part-time combatants deployed between Syria and Iraq, IS employs thousands more people as “another army of administrators to keep the state functioning.” Despite the collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian states in IS-held territories, salaries are being paid, heating fuel is being supplied, taxes are being collected, and medical kits are being passed out. It is not a surprise that locals employed as aid workers are connected to IS – if they are not drawing two paychecks, then IS permitting them to work for the NGOs is payment enough since they have access to vital supplies. As Asharq al-Awsat recently reported, “smuggling in Iraq, even for ISIS, is not considered taboo by some criminals, particularly given the harsh economic realities that have existed in the country since even before the emergence of this terrorist organization.”
This aid, incidentally, is helping IS manage its territory because it frees up resources for the war effort. Ironically, so too did Western aid help the young Soviet government manage a massive famine in the USSR after World War I that threatened the stability of the new communists regime. And like today, the relief organizers back then were aware of the fact that their assistance was a boon to a regime none of their home countries’ governments recognized (and had in the case of the U.S., France and Britain, waged an undeclared war against). Even though some of the aid organizers hoped their assistance would undermine the Bolsheviks and empower resistance to them, this did not come to pass within the USSR, though similar relief efforts arguably did succeed in both their political and humanitarian goals in Central and Eastern Europe.
Given IS’s control over the territory it now holds, it seems unlikely that humanitarian relief could be used to political ends against IS in the short-term. Especially if IS is seen as running a more honest operation that the rival Iraqi government relief efforts that, like IS’s efforts, have been marred by bribery and diversion of goods. The clear challenge for the Iraqi and Syrian governments is, as a Soufan Group assessment describes, is that “[t]he longer that The Islamic State is able to administer Iraqi territory and so reverse the loss of wealth and influence that the population under its control has suffered since 2003, the greater its support will be and the harder to uproot it” – the same is true in northern Syria.
It is hard to imagine that all, or even most, of these former Iraqi military personnel have become religious zealots, though surely, the dislocation brought about by the U.S. invasion and emptiness of Baathist ideology during the years of the sanctions have won IS sincere converts. But, many appear to be fighting because it is the least bad deal in the short-term: they are fed, clothed, paid (for the first time in who knows when), and under the protection of one of the more vicious armed groups operating in Iraq — excluding the pro-Iran militias, and the Iraqi special forces who will not accept them back in en bloc due to their past associations with the House of Saddam. Though they may not occupy the highest seats, they have a place at the table. That is more than can be said for most of them to date in Maliki’s Iraq.
If there is a model for this sort of state-building, it is not medieval, but one not far removed from the present day. Slightly under a hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks in Russia waged war while setting up the fiscal foundations for their state through a combination of widespread theft and redistribution of property to trusted few. While those with the most to lose fled – often forfeiting their possessions doing so – enough opportunists and people with no where else to go remained to collect the taxes, to repair the heaters, to bake the bread, and to sit behind desks stamping forms all day. A report from Niqash notes just how easily it was for IS to accomplish this in the Mosul property market. IS may appoint ideologues to preside over (but not actually run) ministries and factories to manage the institutions, but is utterly dependent on most of the existing staff to continue working for the new boss.
It will be very important to see how IS’s top leadership (who are not ex-Baathists) will squeeze out these erstwhile fellow travelers, whether it is more of a slow purging down into penury or a purge consisting of mass arrests and executions. These people can, after all, never be fully trusted and the whole point of appointing trusted men and women to various offices: to create a new leadership class infused with the movement’s core values. The ex-Baathists time is limited; even more ordinary people in the movement, people without special military skills, are going to be purged under any number of imagined crimes.
IS is rather determined to establish who gets how much money for just about everything under its purview. Ordinances have even been passed outlining medical costs. The biggest question is if such this state is economically sustainable, and if the nations around the Islamic State will not enable its war economy by averting their eyes, in particular to oil and people smuggling. Yet even a kleptocracy can evolve into a state apparatus that endures for years. Especially when there are foreign helpers willing to do business with the thieves and humanitarians who face a far more difficult choice: whether to let the populace starve in the hope it rises up, or to do business with an entity that exploits the relief to survive.