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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


Assessing IS as a State. A Comparison of Rebel Governance

The Islamic State (IS) is losing territorial control in Syria and Iraq. Its leaders proclaimed a Caliphate that they now slowly see crumbling through their fingers. Though its attempts at governance initially appeared convincing, IS seems unable to turn its evasive regime of terror into an actual ‘state’. IS leadership built strong intelligence networks and implemented basic levels of bureaucratization. Yet the leadership now faces problems in its efforts to govern. In comparison, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, whom I have studied closely, were one of the most disciplined and well-organized insurgent groups in recent history and masters of ‘rebel governance’ for more than two decades.  Through rebel governance the Tigers consolidated territorial control and created compliance from the civilian population. The group was not Islamic or religious and ideologically completely unlike IS. Yet there are striking resemblances between Sri Lanka and the current strategy of IS in Iraq and Syria. By assessing how IS and the Tigers attempted to create state structures we can begin to understand the workings of ‘rebel governance’ and why it seems to be failing for IS.

This map approximately shows the areas of Sri Lanka controlled by the LTTE and the Government, as of December 2005, source: Wikimedia Commons

This map approximately shows the areas of Sri Lanka controlled by the LTTE and the Government, as of December 2005, source: Wikimedia Commons

Governing Capacities of the Tigers

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, were an active insurgent group in Sri Lanka from the 1980s until their final defeat in 2009. The LTTE’s struggle against the Sri Lankan government centered around their claim to a homeland for ethnic Tamils in the northeast of the island. The Tigers were notorious as one of the first to use bomb jackets and women in suicide attacks. Alongside their use of terrorist tactics, the LTTE also engaged in civilian governance. In a recent publication, Georg Frerks and I show how the Tigers became involved in different sectors of governance, donning the cloak of statehood without the recognition of the international community. For the Tigers, rebel governance was an effective strategy to secure territorial control and to create compliance from the civilian population. Through intelligence networks, the Tamil Eelam police force and the Tamil Eelam courts, the Tigers were able to closely monitor and regulate daily life in the territories they controlled. Moreover, with strong regulations the Tigers were able to define what the civilian population would read (LTTE newspapers), see (LTTE movies) and hear (LTTE ceremonies). At the same time, this winning over of hearts and minds was complemented with the regulation of public services, such as education and health care facilities. The LTTE’s strategy of governance mixed forceful coercion, intrusion and softer ways of persuasion: a mixture that kept the Tiger’s state-like rule in place for approximately two decades.

Intelligence and Bureaucracy in the Caliphate

Over the past years, the internal organisation of IS in Iraq and Syria has also evolved into a bureaucratic apparatus focused on earning a sufficient income to finance widespread governance initiatives. IS started to govern its territories and installed a cabinet of ministers responsible for separate ministerial bureaucracies. These ministries fulfil several military, civil, political, and financial duties. According to various reports, the first thing IS affiliates do when they take control of a territory is establishing a Sharia police force to impose their version of proper Islamic conduct. Soon there came Sharia courts, followed by a Sharia council; a security and intelligence council; an economic council; an education council; an Islamic services council; and several provincial councils. The regime of IS in Iraq and Syria is manned by former Iraqi officers, some of whom were trained by the German Democratic Republic’s Stasi during their service under Saddam Hussein. IS has created an Islamic Intelligence State and some observers even claim that its organisational structure resembles that of the Stasi. Through its solid intelligence networks, its policing capacities and its sharia courts, IS governs civilian populations coercively. What inhabitants of IS territory get to read, see, and hear is controlled by regulations and the monitoring of individual behaviour.

IS institutions, source: Wikimedia Commons

IS institutions, source: Wikimedia Commons


IS further tried to provide public services, mimicking an important state function to induce compliance from the civilian population. Despite pretty rhetoric in its propaganda machine claiming that the organization is providing social services and promoting its own health architecture, voices on the ground indicate that IS-run healthcare is a disaster. Private health clinics have been closed and the public hospitals charge high prices for civilians. In the earlier days of the Caliphate, IS invested in food distribution and water supplies, but currently basic public services like clean drinking water, electricity, health care and food distribution are practically non-existent for civilians in cities such as Mosul. Unlike the Tamil Tigers, IS seems unable to provide services in these sectors of governance.

Prospects of IS as a State

On the short term, IS has strategically gained from its involvement in governance, especially thanks to the solid intelligence networks that IS operatives built within the Iraqi and Syrian communities. They are able to closely monitor the behavior of civilians, to do policing and implement their harsh conception of justice. In this sense, IS governance is quite similar to the ruling capabilities of the Tamil Tigers. The two modes of rebel governance differ, however, when it comes to IS’s limited ability to provide public services to the civilian population and increase civil compliance to their rule. This failure may not have immediate consequences, but it could pose real strategic problems for IS on the long-term. For rebel governance to be effective there needs to be a careful balance between instruments of discipline, coercion, and softer ways of persuasion.

Rebel governance and border disputes, source: Flickr


Given the increasing military pressure on IS from various sides, the organization will almost certainly be forced to redirect some of the resources that it had invested in civilian governance and use those for military means. This shift in expenditure may result in less protection for civilians and a complete lack of basic service provision throughout IS territory, pushing more people to flee the Caliphate’s terrain if they can. This, taken together with the current tactic of human shielding, will not increase the popularity of IS rule amongst the civilian population. As a consequence, it seems likely that IS will lose the short-term strategic benefits that ‘rebel governance’ provided in earlier days. With a long-term vision of balancing military means and civilian governance the Tigers were able to extend their early successes, for IS however, the days of rebel lordship within the boundaries of the Caliphate’s current territory seem marked.