More than a year after declaring the Caliphate the Islamic State has control over large swaths of territory in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, where millions of people live under its ironclad rule. As the group has dominated headlines around the world with scenes of its unmatched brutality and military exploits, it has acquired a reputation as a bloodthirsty gang surviving and thriving off of its savagery alone. While the Islamic State’s barbarity is undeniable, its life force stems from a side that, although less publicized, accounts for the majority of the group’s activities: a system of governance entailing institutional services, judicial processes, infrastructure work, essential consumer products, recreational activities, and more. These activities are transforming the 12-year-old terrorist group into a de facto governing body.

This article builds a picture of Islamic State governance based on a review of thousands of the group’s videos and communiqués, released by its so-called ministry of media via the group’s official online channels. The propaganda’s reliability as a reflection of reality is always under question, so it is important to consider the material in a critical manner. Residents of Syrian and Iraqi towns under Islamic State control have been quoted in several media reports speaking of deteriorating services, rising prices, and shortages of medicines.[1] Islamic State releases often paint a rosy picture, but are often the sole source of information as the group prohibits opposing views or narratives, and they provide a glimpse into the group’s real attempts to govern and provide services, efforts which are likely to be more advanced in Islamic State strongholds such as Mosul and Raqqa than other areas controlled by the group.

Assessing the Islamic State’s Claims
In assessing the Islamic State’s claim to have set up a system of governance the key question is not whether services have improved or deteriorated, so much as the degree to which the Islamic State has been able to win acceptance by delivering them at tolerable levels to populations whose expectations have been dampened by years of violence and corruption. The fact that the Islamic State is delivering them at all, and in many areas has a monopoly of delivering them, buttresses its claims to have created a de facto state. It would be far-fetched to believe that all the hundreds of Syrians and Iraqis featured in its videos boasting of enforcement of security measures and provision of services are making such claims under duress.

Recent research, drawing on Islamic State documents not published by the group’s media arms, has pointed to growing sophistication in the group’s governance structures. For example, a research paper published earlier this month by Aymenn al-Tamimi found that Islamic State documents obtained privately from pro- and anti-Islamic State sources, pointed to a “bureaucratic system [with] a level of complexity and professionalism that probably makes the Islamic State sustainable, even under containment.”[2]

Statebuilding in the Caliphate
By capitalizing on the population’s social and political insecurities, the Islamic State has transformed itself into a seemingly indispensable governing entity, providing goods and services, consequently making it more difficult to uproot. With significant funds from the banks and private properties it has seized, the taxes it is collecting, and the oil it is selling, the Islamic State transformed the way jihadi terrorist groups operate, setting its sights higher than just overthrowing local governments, instead becoming one of them.

The Islamic State’s provision of services not only reinforced the group’s territorial expansion in the Middle East, it also facilitated the group’s recruitment of Westerners, thousands of whom have flocked to join its ranks. The appeal to join is founded in more than just the romanticized rise of an Islamic fighting force. The true attraction lies in the idea of a novel Islamic society, offering a sense of belonging and “citizenship.” This has been explicitly communicated by the Islamic State’s many foreign fighters. André Poulin, a Canadian national better known as “Abu Muslim al-Canadi,” expressed this notion in a September 2014 Islamic State video release:

You know, there’s a role for everybody. Every person can contribute something to the Islamic State…If you cannot fight, then you give money, if you cannot give money then you can assist in technology, and if you can’t assist in technology you can use some other skills. [3]

One of the driving forces behind the Islamic State’s success and mass appeal has been its ability to provide basic services at a tolerable level. The Islamic State has done this by merging preexisting structures and institutions with newly imported skills and talents. It has restructured local markets by permitting locals and foreign recruits with relevant skill sets to renovate and manage important elements of the service and medical industry. Rather than launch an overhaul, the Islamic State has grafted itself onto pre-existing structures, by compelling employees to stay in their jobs. Hospitals have kept many of their doctors and nurses and utility providers have kept many of their engineers. In Iraq, as others have noted, the Islamic State’s ability to keep employees in their jobs has been assisted considerably by the fact that the government in Baghdad has continued to pay the salaries of public employees in areas controlled by the Islamic State.[4]

Simultaneously the Islamic State has helped build up new businesses, such as grocery stores, encouraged locals to reopen factories[5] and purportedly even instituted banking services.[6] The Islamic State’s status as a governing entity has also been bolstered by their monitoring of public behavior and daily routines because this provides a constant reminder to the local population that the Islamic State has a monopoly of power.

The Islamic State’s large fighting force, expansive territory, and implementation of Sharia has legitimized its declaration of statehood among the global jihadi community. In Syria and Iraq the group’s provision of medical, social, policing, and rescue services has appealed to locals and driven recruitment, bridging the gap between hardliners and those on the brink of succumbing to the Islamic State’s ideology.

With the Islamic State cementing its position in Sirte, Libya, this model of state-building is now being implemented beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.[7]

The Islamic State provides services to the populace from local law enforcement to market places. Each division, or department, has an office in every “province,” which is a reference to the group’s operational territories and strongholds. All provinces, which are governed by Caliph-appointed rulers, are broken into districts, and districts into cities and villages. Its Zakat Department, for instance, which is responsible for collecting a mandatory fee (or tax), runs offices across Iraq and Syria, where locals are shown in Islamic State propaganda receiving money, food products, and clothing.[8] Thousands of families who lack viable sources of income rely on these handouts.

The fortunes of the local populations have in many areas become intertwined with the Islamic State. The chaotic situation in the region and the lack of alternatives mean that the Islamic State is the only provider of vital services in many areas. The group has asphalted roads, filled grain silos, renovated bridges, built traffic circles, and offered medical services (with the exception of sophisticated surgeries).[9] These projects have primarily been documented in Islamic State releases. And some unofficial reports have filtered out from those living under the group’s control, most notably via personal social media accounts.[10]

The hospitals it captured in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour have purportedly been cleaned and renovated. They look like they are staffed by medical teams on a 24/7 basis and have functioning equipment.[11] Again, it should be stressed these services are featured in the Islamic State’s official media releases, and verifying the information is difficult. Additionally, it is impossible to be sure if the Islamic State provides the same services to each and every town and district it rules. The likelihood is that it does not, focusing largely on its two main strongholds, Mosul and Raqqa.

This article next discusses a number of the Islamic State’s advertised governance and services through the lens of its own propaganda, including its court system, law enforcement, financial and food aid, water and electricity, and education.

Sharia Justice
By basing its legislation on radical interpretations of Sharia law, the Islamic State is able to instill fear as a means of garnering obedience. Despite its brutality, the Islamic State’s legal system claims to be succeeding in punishing thieves, murderers, rapists, extortionists, and corrupt officials.[12] The group’s Sharia Council establishes and runs courts where individuals face charges and, if convicted, are sentenced to severe punishments. Many stories from Islamic State territory in Syria detail such verdicts.[13] Thieves lose their hands and murderers are publicly executed, while extortionists often lose a hand and a foot. All this makes locals nervous about conducting business in Islamic State territory in any ways that might upset the group’s officials.

Fulfilling its role as governing body, the group enforces traffic laws, runs correctional facilities, and empowers its al Hesbah Police Force (also known as the morality police) to detain individuals who commit various offenses.[14] The Sharia Court is essentially the final word in law enforcement. Each town and district under the Islamic State’s control has its own black-painted court building, where people can file charges, even, allegedly, against Islamic State officials themselves.

Al-Hesbah Police
Al-Hesbah’s motto, “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil,” is a standard that is determined according to Sharia law.[15] Hesbah is derived from the Arabic verb “hasaba,” which means “calculated.” As a noun, hesbah means “accountability,” one of the Caliph’s main duties—to command the good deeds and forbid the malicious ones, subsequently punishing wrongdoers. Essentially, it is an executive doctrine that provides al-Hesbah with significant power, even over senior commanders or emirs. The Islamic State was reported to have executed a number of its commanders who abused their positions. In November 2014, for instance, the group beheaded and crucified a commander who engaged in extortion, demanding fines from individuals he accused of apostasy.[16]

As its guiding principles are derived from ultraorthodox Sharia laws, many actions that are acceptable in the West are prohibited under the group’s rule, including smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, having premarital sex, and public indecency—which could lead to a man’s public flogging if his wife is not covered with the full niqab.[17] Furthermore, adulterers are sentenced to death by stoning and homosexuals are thrown from the roofs of buildings as punishment.[18] Many of the Islamic State’s verdicts are so grisly, they serve as deterrents against potential rebellions and criminals alike. In one incident, the group sentenced two people to death by crushing their skulls with a brick because they allegedly killed a relative in the same manner.[19]

The group’s videos have featured interviews with locals who apparently rejoice in being able to leave their businesses unlocked and sleep with their doors open. This is presumably an attempt to boost recruitment by highlighting claimed security improvements.

The Rundown on Zakat
Zakat is a primary pillar of Islam. Under Sharia law, it obligates financially capable Muslims to pay a sum of their money and assets to the Caliph’s treasury; a centuries-old practice revived by the Islamic State. Business owners are the primary subjects in the collection process; shop-owners, jewelers, shepherds, landlords, and others must pay. The Islamic State claims it in turn provides money, food, and clothing to the impoverished.[20]

By providing children and their families with the much-needed aid, the group is able to present itself as a hero of sorts, and potentially even  recruit the recipients. Media reports primarily highlight attacks carried out by the group’s foreign fighters in Syria, creating the impression that foreigners are the group’s keystone. The reality, however, is that Syrian and Iraqi youth play a critical role in the Islamic State’s advancement. In Syria, for example, local youth conduct suicide attacks against Kurdish forces, regime soldiers, and rival rebel groups. On July 6, for instance, the group claimed credit for a suicide attack near Ras al’Ayn, purportedly killing more than 50 Kurdish fighters, launched by a child identified as “Abu Khattab al-Ansari,” who was allegedly 14 years old.[21] Although some youth have likely joined the group’s ranks willingly, many of them were left with no alternative, joining due to their dependence on Islamic State-provided aid, which motivates families to place their children in the Islamic State’s custody. The Islamic State purportedly provides salaries to many of its fighters, an attractive proposition for impoverished youngsters in Syria and Iraq alike.

Health and Food Safety
One of al-Hesbah’s duties is guaranteeing that food products are safe for consumption, essentially assuming the role of a health and safety department. Its inspectors regularly check businesses such as butchers and groceries, and evaluate the products’ safety, from checking expiration dates to testing items.[22] Al-Hesbah also cracks down on business owners who manipulate prices, especially those who cheat the scale when selling fruits and vegetables.[23]  Al-Hesbah is also responsible for butchers where cattle are slaughtered for consumption. The cattle must be slaughtered in accordance with strict religious standards; otherwise, it is considered haram (forbidden) to eat. The meat received from Islamic State factories is guaranteed, and stamped with its name and price regulated.[24]

The Islamic State claims it has also begun offering polio vaccines, among others, to children at hospitals and makeshift, or external, clinics.[25] The apparent delivery of such services and their marketing bolster the standing of the Islamic State at the local level, offering services that would otherwise be neglected but are nonetheless vital to the population’s well-being.

Education Department
Demonstrating its apparently comprehensive approach to social services, the Islamic State media releases show it reopening classrooms, hiring teachers, and establishing a department for education affairs. The group offers classes in Sharia studies, Arabic literature, history, geography, math, chemistry, physics, biology,  and physical education, in addition to professional and technical schools that offer classes in business, industrial studies, and agriculture.[26] It also appears to run nursing and business administration schools.[27]

The Islamic State recently launched a hiring campaign in its Iraqi stronghold Mosul requiring teachers to be qualified in the subject matter and pass the group’s mandatory examination, which is partly religious.[28] As most teachers under its rule are not loyal adherents to its ideology, let alone learned in religious jurisprudence, the Islamic State offers teachers, as well as other professionals, religious courses prior to reinstituting them.

Water and Electricity
Capitalizing on the need for water and electricity, which are now considered luxuries in some Syrian areas, the Islamic State has taken control of these utilities in its territory.[29] The picture that emerges in Islamic State media releases is of the group managing distribution to locals who cannot afford to lose access. As electrical generators and water supplies have been degraded during the ongoing conflict—often because of strikes by Assad regime barrel bombs—the Islamic State claims that construction teams have repaired critical infrastructure that locals now depend on.[30]  These claims are difficult to assess. While there have been reports of improved electricity supply in some areas controlled by the Islamic State, there are significant question marks about its sustainability. These concerns also apply to water supply improvements, particularly given depleted water levels in Lake Assad in northern Syria.[31]

In some areas, the Islamic State offers free bus transportation. In al Zab area between Mosul and Erbil, for instance, there is allegedly a free Islamic State-run bus service for locals, who travel between the group’s strongholds in the same province.[32] Similarly, in Raqqa Province, the Islamic State’s main Syrian stronghold, modern buses have been apparently provided for locals travelling in the area between Tal Abyad and Tabqa. The group’s supply routes between Deir al-Zour and Homs are now open for locals, who can, for the first time since the Islamic State captured territory in Syria, travel by bus between two different provinces.[33]

The Islamic State has provided a semblance of governance over large swaths of territory and millions of people, while facing sustained aerial campaigns. This has bolstered the confidence of its fighters and administrators, further feeding its growth.

The Islamic State’s provisions of services are imperfect, but they help many Syrians and Iraqis survive amid the conflicts, and thus ultimately bolster the Islamic State’s recruitment. This has been one of the primary drivers behind the group’s growth and global following, despite its savagery. In their desperation for sustenance and struggle for survival, much of the population in areas controlled by the Islamic State accepts its largesse even as its agents publicly mutilate, flog, and execute people. Ultimately, the Islamic State’s survival as a governing body depends on its continued efforts to provide locals with tolerable levels of security, shelter, and comestibles.

Laith Alkhouri is the co-founder and Director of Middle East/North Africa Research at Flashpoint, an American organization tracking Jihadi messaging. You can follow him at @MENAanalyst.

Alex Kassirer is a Research Analyst on Middle East/North Africa Terrorism at Flashpoint. You can follow her at @FlashpointIntel.


[1] Liz Sly, “The Islamic State is Failing at Being a State,” Washington Post, December 25, 2014.

[2] According to al-Tamimi, “the sheer range of documents that has emerged over the past year covers a broad range of domains, including regulations on fishing, tax forms for electricity services, licenses for excavations of antiquities, phone subscriptions, fees for sanitation services, agricultural crop plants, unified Friday sermons, vaccination programs, and fixing rent rates for property.” See Aymenn Al-Tamimi,  “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence,” Perspectives on Terrorism,  9:4,  July 9, 2015.

[3] The Islamic State, “Al-Hayat Media Presents: Al-Ghuraba The Chosen Few of Different Lands: Abu Muslim from Canada,” distributed via, July 12, 2014, p.  4.

[4] Al-Tamimi

[5] The Islamic State, “The Media Office in Falluja Province: Construction of Shops,” distributed via, July 6, 2015.

[6] The Islamic State, “A Year of Conquest,” Accessed via, June 12, 2015.

[7] The Islamic State. Media Office in Tripoli Presents Images of Islamic State Guards on Duty in Sirte. distributed via, April 29, 2015; Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Burgeoning Capital in Sirte, Libya,” Policy Watch 2462, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 6, 2015 .

[8] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “The Distribution of Zakat,” distributed via, February 21, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Euphrates, “The Distribution of Zakat,” distributed via, February 17, 2015.

[9] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Aleppo, “Part of the Wheat Harvest,” distributed via, May 26, 2015.

[10] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “Images of Mosul City,” Accessed via Twitter, August 10, 2015.

[11] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Aleppo, “Video Featuring Elderly Turkestani Fighter,” Accessed via, June 02, 2015; The Islamic State, “Health services in the Islamic State,” distributed via, April 24, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Raqqa, “Video Featuring Maternity Hospital,” distributed via, January 1, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Kirkuk, “Images of “Aaesha Mother of the Faithful” Maternity Hospital,” distributed via Twitter, November 11, 2014.

[12] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Saladin, “The Application of God’s Rule to Cut Off the Hand of a Thief,” distributed via, May 4. 2015.

[13] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Falluja, “Images of the Execution of Homosexuals,” distributed via, July 1, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “Images Featuring the Punishment of Thieves,” distributed via, February 11, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “Images Featuring Execution of Alleged Murderers,” distributed via, April 30, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Homs, “Images Featuring Execution of Spies by Machine Gun,”  distributed via, March 19, 2015.

[14] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “A Message from Who Excused to Those Not Excused,” distributed via, March 08, 2015.

[15] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “ Images of Islamic State Police,” distributed via, September 18, 2014.

[16] The Islamic State, “[The Islamic State] executed a Commander on Charges of Embezzling Funds from the Financial House of the Islamic State,” distributed via, November 16, 2014.

[17] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Barqa Province, “Images of Flogging,” distributed via, February 12, 2015.

[18] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Falluja, “Images of Execution of Homosexuals,” distributed via, July 01, 2015.

[19] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Nineveh, “Images Featuring Execution of Murderers,” distributed via, April 30, 2015.

[20] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Anbar, “Images of the Office of Zakat,” distributed via, April 06, 2015.

[21] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Raqqa, “Images and Statement of Suicide Attack Using Child Soldier,” distributed via Twitter, July 06, 2015.

[22] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Aleppo, “Images Featuring Spoiling of Non-Halal Chicken,” distributed via, April 01, 2015.

[23] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Raqqa, “Video Featuring Office of Monitoring and Investigation,” distributed via, April 02, 2015.

[24] Ibid

[25] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Al-Khair, “Images of Vaccination Campaign,” distributed via, May 23, 2015; The Islamic State, The Media Office in Damascus, “Images of Vaccination Campaign,” distributed via, February 22, 2015.

[26] The Islamic State, Forum Posting Featuring Image of Islamic State Textbook,” distributed via, July 15, 2015.

[27] Raqqa-Sl. “ISIS Nurses Told They Must Speak ENGLISH Under Rules Stricter than NHS,” September 4, 2015.

[28] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Raqqa, “Images of Teacher Qualification Exam,” distributed via, August 09, 2015.

[29] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Al-Khair, “Images of Power and Electric Plant,” distributed via, May 28, 2015.

[30] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Al-Khair, “Images of Water Infrastructure Reparations,” distributed via, August 03, 2015.

[31] For more see Danya Chudacoff, “‘Water War’ Threatens Syria Lifeline,” al-Jazeera, July 7, 2014.

[32] The Islamic State, The Media Office in Dijlah, “Image of Public Transporation,” distributed via Shabakataljahad, July 20, 2015.

[33] Travelers from outside Islamic State territory who want to visit end up at one of the group’s garages, where they are questioned about their visit. Once they pass, they know that the only authorities they will face are Islamic State officials.

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