Since its expansion into Syria in 2014, the Islamic State has established institutions of governance there that it has portrayed as exemplary models of efficiency after centuries of “barbarian chaos.” However, the reality is less idyllic. Informal practices, in particular wasta—loosely translated as favoritism or intercession—have undermined these formal institutions. If anything, the Islamic State’s governance system has reminded many of those under its control of the Syrian regime’s behavior.
The dominant informal networks in areas controlled by the Islamic State are those defined by kinship, geographical connections, and friendship. These relationships are frequently relied upon to resolve security issues, such as releasing prisoners, or to benefit from particular services. When official Islamic State institutions fail to deliver, residents begin looking for alternative means of achieving their objectives. The way they do so is to try exploiting a possible connection to the Islamic State’s cadres.
The Islamic State had introduced a three-tiered institutional structure wherever it is present. It has established 35 regional administrations worldwide, 19 of them in Syria and Iraq, known as wilayaat. It has also created a set of specialized departments, which are equivalent to ministries, which generally have local offices in areas ruled by the Islamic State. These it has called dawawin. And it has established a network of independent institutions, called the Committees and the Offices (Al-Hayaat wal-Makateb), which include the Bureau of Public Relations and Tribes that deals in Syria mainly with the tribes of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
The case of one activist, Khalifa, provides a good illustration of how informal ties are used to circumvent the Islamic State’s institutions. Khalifa, who comes from a tribal background in Raqqa, was arrested by the Islamic State in Aleppo governorate, where he lives. The group’s judiciary sentenced him to death on the grounds that he worked for a secular opposition television network, an accusation that was untrue. Khalifa’s brother Sager sought his release by appealing to a local branch of the Bureau of Public Relations and Tribes. Yet the appeal was met with intransigence. The family resorted to finding a personal link with senior officials in the Islamic State. They discovered that an Islamic State governor, or wali, hailed from the same region as they did. Khalifa was eventually released thanks to the intervention of the wali’s father. In spite of the Islamic State’s institutional framework, the residents resorted to wasta, which is how they had done things when living under the control of the Assad regime.
Even within Islamic State institutions, favoritism exists, albeit in legalized forms. The organization is aware of the negative connotations of the term wasta, which is why it introduced the system of tazkiya, which literally translates into “recommendation.” What it means is that those “recommended” by Islamic State members may enjoy some form of favored status. For example, if a tribe with significant manpower in the Islamic State intervenes on behalf of a prisoner, that person’s treatment is likely to improve. During his imprisonment in the town of Al-Bab, Khalifa noticed that the Bureau of Public Relations had interceded for certain people, who “received better treatment and food, were not tortured, and enjoyed recurring family visits.”
Other forms of favoritism are visible as well. Former residents of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, refer to favoritism in the Islamic State’s distribution of zakat, or alms for the poor that are collected through a tax. The Islamic State has a department devoted to almsgiving, named the Diwan al-Zakat, whose workers often prioritize their relatives and allied tribes in distributing assistance, whether cash or basic food items. Those who receive a recommendation from an Islamic State official, for whatever reason, even if it is personal, are also prioritized.
Another form of favoritism, visible to residents of Islamic State areas, is based on ethnicity. There is a noticeable hierarchy in the organization that advantages those from Iraq, where the Islamic State first emerged, or who have Iraqi ties. To many of the residents, this is reminiscent of the Syrian regime’s “Qordaha connection”—the perceived favoritism for Alawis hailing from the hometown of the Assad family in appointments to high positions in the Syrian state and security apparatus.
The strength of the Iraqi connection has been illustrated by the rise of the young emir of Raqqa’s Bureau of Public Relations and Tribes, Tubad al-Breiji, a Syrian. According to sources in Raqqa, under the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Tubad’s father escaped the regime’s crackdown on Syrian supporters of the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party, and fled across the border to Iraq. Residents regard the Iraqi Baathist links of Tubad’s father as a significant factor in Tubad’s early enrollment in the Islamic State and his quick ascendancy within the organization’s ranks.
The Iraqi association also manifests itself at an institutional level through the feared Designated Committee (Al-Lijna al-Mufawwada). This is an executive office that conveys the wishes of Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, to the organization’s various institutions. The committee’s members, usually Iraqis, conduct regular and unexpected inspections of local bodies. When a member is in town, the word spreads quickly among the immediate population.
This higher status of Iraqis manifests itself in other forms as well, beyond institutions and formal governance. According to residents, Syrian clans with Iraqi Islamic State ties are usually in a stronger position to mediate for the release of imprisoned relatives or improve their conditions of detention. This intervention often occurs informally, not through the Bureau of Public Relations.
According to other residents, in certain Syrian regions under the Islamic State, hearing an Iraqi accent commands the same fear that a Qordaha accent would in Baathist Syria. A journalist who lived in Raqqa until late 2015 witnessed an incident involving a Tunisian working for the Islamic State’s morality police—the Haya al-Shariyya, a branch of Diwan al-Hisbah, the department dealing with Islamic laws—and a Syrian female:
In February 2015, I was in Al-Wadi neighborhood. A Hisba car stopped a woman for not wearing a full niqab [a veil that completely covers the face]. As the Tunisian was trying to force the woman into the Hisbah car, another car with tinted windows and [Nineveh, Iraq] license plates, pulled up. To the delight of onlookers, a man came out and had a conversation with the Tunisian to restrain him and let the local woman go. When the Tunisian refused strongly to give up on the matter, the man slapped him, ending the episode abruptly and humiliating the muhajer [foreign fighter].
The locals reacted positively to this particular instance of Iraqi hegemony within the organization’s transnational structure, given the unpopularity of the Tunisian fighters. However, according to the same source, fear of Iraqis is more prevalent than respect: “If a military vehicle with Iraqi license plates passes on a Raqqa street, people deal with it as if Azrael [the angel of death] himself is driving.” A Deir Ezzor activist says that in 2015, to control a wave of local complaints and resentment, the Islamic State imposed a punishment of 100 lashes on anyone who criticized or insulted Iraqis.
The Islamic State’s experience of local governance in Syria appears to be creating the precise opposite of what the organization had intended. Rather than representing an alternative to the Assad regime, the Islamic State has reinstated similar practices of nepotism and favoritism, weakening its own institutions. Instead of a revolutionary break with the past, the Islamic State’s has borrowed the worst elements of that past.