Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group / AP

ISIL is more than just a police state

New analysis fails to capture the group’s unique sway with young recruits

April 27, 2015 11:00AM ET

An analysis of 31 pages of recently discovered documents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) argues that the organization is best understood not as an apocalyptic revolution but rather as a secret police state.

“In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history,” writes Christoph Reuter for the German magazine Der Spiegel. To him, the documents are “not a manifesto of faith but a technically precise plan for an ‘Islamic intelligence state’ — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.”

These documents, taken from the papers of a now deceased ISIL sheik, help explain the group’s success in recruiting and disciplining fighters as well as the fundamentals of how to use espionage, abduction, murder and terror to subdue a village or region. But the documents do not adequately describe the genuine fervor of the recruits from many countries who rush to ISIL in Syria, Libya, Nigeria or Afghanistan to throw themselves into enslavement and self-destruction. Nor do the documents illustrate the important distinction between terror in the service of building or maintaining a state, such as Stasi for East Germany, and ISIL’s ambition to shatter states in order to create a vast transcontinental, even global, caliphate.

Haji Bakr’s vision

According to Der Spiegel, the documents were found in the Syrian city of Tal Rafaat, north of Aleppo, in the house of a former Iraqi intelligence officer whose nom de guerre was Haji Bakr. He was killed in January 2014 in a raid by ISIL’s major rival in the Syrian civil war, Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusrah (the Nusra Front.)

Haji Bakr’s real name was Samir Abd Muhammed al-Khlifawi. He was a colonel in Iraq’s military intelligence who was thrown out of work when the U.S. State Department abolished Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003. Soon after that, Bakr joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s rebellion against the U.S. occupation and was held in U.S. custody from 2006 to 2008. 

In 2010, Bakr and other former intelligence officers recruited the Iraqi cleric who was to become the caliph of ISIL, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badr, whose nom de guerre is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Bakr’s planned a rebellion that would avoid Zarqawi’s failure to subdue the substate actors in Iraq: the tribes, clans and families. 

It was Bakr’s blueprint for ISIL that gave it the structure and discipline it needed to emerge quickly out of the chaos of the civil wars. What Bakr designed was an off-the-shelf revolutionary secret police state. It looks like a Soviet-era wiring diagram, divided into regional and district levels. It creates a disciplined terror cult that aims to subvert not only the state but also substate actors by intimidation or murder.

ISIL offers a vision of the past glory of Islam that can be impossible to resist for the young and zealous.

Thanks to Bakr’s innovation, ISIL has not only a bureaucracy for maintaining its domain but also a parallel surveillance apparatus within all the departments. Everyone spies on everyone else. It is a workmanlike daily reign of terror toward its own recruits, just like Stasi and the notorious KGB.

ISIL’s growth

Sensing opportunity beyond Iraq, Bakr’s ISIL is said to have disguised itself as a harmless Dawah or charity office in the rebellious areas of Syria such as Aleppo province and Raqqa while it made endless lists of leading families and their weaknesses to be exploited either by blackmail or murder. 

Bakr’s ISIL was able to maintain a low profile because it didn’t use Syrian or Iraqi agents, who were likely to be recognized, but recruited neophytes from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Europe. These fighters were credulous and subservient about their missions, since they were cut off from other sources of information.

Sharia, or Islamic law, is mentioned in Bakr’s blueprint as a means to intimidate and enforce discipline among ISIL recruits and against resistance in the villages of Syria. Critically, according to the Der Spiegel’s analysis, Bakr’s blueprint had little to say about religious zeal. A former colleague of Bakr’s, now a journalist, Hisham al-Hashimi, recalls that Bakr was “highly intelligent, firm, an excellent logistician” but “a nationalist, not an Islamist.”

In sum, according to Der Spiegel, Bakr’s plan for ISIL was to reconquer Iraq and establish a beachhead in Syria. It was not ever about a global crusade. 

The global caliphate

While Der Spiegel’s analysis throws some light on its subject, it both overestimates the power of terror to manage ISIL’s recruits and underestimates ISIL’s appeal to many young Sunnis. ISIL offers a vision of the past glory of Islam that can be impossible to resist for the young and zealous. ISIL works smoothly as a war-making machine because it has a foundational narrative that inspires obedience, heroism and self-sacrifice.

ISIL is reportedly fashioned to be a global all-Muslim movement, not a parochial rebellion to subvert just Iraq and Syria. ISIL is universal in its goals. Although it started its rise in Mesopotamia, it is quickly expanding to Africa, South Asia and beyond. ISIL attracts recruits from all the continents.

Finally, my information is that the former intelligence professionals who are directing ISIL’s expansion are most sensitive to the role of the substate actors of the region. ISIL does not use police-state brutality against the Sunni families in Syria and Iraq. Rather, it seeks to work with the leaders to maintain piety and discipline in the region, something the Americans and the Shia government in Baghdad could never achieve.

Bakr’s blueprint was a necessary start for creating an apparatus that could both administer territory (what Zarqawi failed to accomplish) and deploy combat units for new conquests. But Bakr’s textbook for tyranny would be limited without an inspiration to make everyone work for a common purpose. It is wrong-headed to think of ISIL as a 20th-century nationalist revolution, such as communism, that became an illegitimate police state. The Baathists are gone. ISIL’s vision of a global caliphate that reaches back more than a millennium to early Islam and the pious caliphs is more sophisticated and profound than political theory. ISIL will grow and spread like a fire across borders and oceans until it is treated as a threat to the idea of state sovereignty itself.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Iraq, Islamic State

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