Introduction and Analysis
Though the regime offensives backed by Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias to supplement the manpower on the ground initially seemed to make little headway territorially, it is apparent that they have triggered manpower problems within the ranks of the rebels, most notably as several prominent leaders in a number of formations have been taken out. Combined with gradual regime advances in Aleppo and Latakia, these developments have prompted a number of mobilization calls and appeals for help. For example, in December 2015, Kata'ib Ansar al-Sham- one of the factions that have lost leaders in the recent offensives- issued a call for help in light of the high attrition being suffered on the Sahel [coastal] front. Sure enough, that statement proved to foreshadow the recent string of advances for the regime in Latakia, such that the insurgency now risks losing all footholds in the province.
Abu al-Waleed al-Salafi, whose complete history of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam I have previously translated, has also written Twitter essays on Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and compiled lists of names of individuals who came to hold key positions within the ranks of the Islamic State and its leaders. I have also translated these essays. I do not necessarily vouch for all the information presented here and working out exact datings can be difficult. Nonetheless I have tried to summarize the most important information in a table below. Explanatory notes of my own occur in square brackets. If more data become available I will add them to this post as updates. Readers should pay particular attention to cases of overlap: that is, where an individual holds more than one leadership position in the organzation. Of interest also is the shift to the establishment of a military council during Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's tenure as overall leader.
The Guardian recently published a story based on documents captured by the Kurdish YPG forces after expelling the Islamic State (IS) from the town of Tel Abyad in northern Raqqa province on the border with Turkey. The documents concern issues of transportation and migration. Since I helped the newspaper to verify the documents and did some additional research, I believe it worthwhile to write an extended commentary on this matter, not only to shed light on how transportation and migration work in the IS administrative system, but also the controversial issue of the Turkey-IS relationship.
To begin with, it is worth producing the documents in full as per below.
The original raw archive of Islamic State administrative documents I began back in January 2015 now contains well over 300 specimens to view in the original and in translation. Owing to technical issues, no further specimens can be added to the original post and so the archive must be continued here. To avoid confusion, there will be continuity with the original classification system. Thus, the last specimen in the first post was Specimen 12J, and so the first specimen added here will be Specimen 12K.
Of all Islamic State [IS] affiliates abroad, the Libyan 'provinces' are by far the most successful. Despite being driven out of the city of Derna in the eastern Cyrenaica region last year, IS has been able to consolidate control over the city of Sirte in the Tripolitania region further west along the Mediterranean coastline, setting up an administration akin to its bureaucracy in Syria and Iraq with its various government departments. For instance, Sirte has a fully functioning IS court, dealing with issues of ratifying transactions, marriage contracts and authorizing confiscations. In addition, the Diwan al-Da'wa wa al-Masajid (Da'wa and Mosques Department) organizes da'wa meetings to promote religious outreach to the local population and sets timings for the call to prayer at the mosques.
Concern has been raised that Libya is being used as a "fallback" option in case the IS project collapses in Iraq and Syria. I do not find this interpretation plausible, as IS had officially declared provinces in Libya back in November 2014 and had likely been building links well before then: that is, long before any major setbacks had occurred for IS in Iraq and Syria. In any case, it is clear that many personnel from Syria and Iraq have moved to Libya as part of the expansion efforts- exporting operatives being one of the functions in particular of the elite Jaysh al-Khilafa. One of the dispatched persons was the senior figure Abu Nabil al-Anbari, who was declared to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in November 2015. He was also known by other kunyas including Abu al-Mughira al-Qahtani. The eulogy for him here [H/T: Daniele Raineri & Kevin Jackson] confirms the fact of his death, which had been disputed at the time. The most notable point here is that he was apparently IS' provincial governor for Salah al-Din province in central-northern Iraq at one point (where the cities of Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji are located).
The news outlet Reuters has been a running a series of pieces on Islamic State documents and files obtained by U.S. special forces during the Abu Sayyaf raid earlier this year. A recent article by the outlet mentions a pamphlet on slavery that Reuters was able to view. It so happens I was able to obtain this pamphlet from a contact in northern Syria earlier this year, and I produce the text and my translation of this pamphlet for the first time in the public domain below. The pamphlet, issued by the Diwan al-'Iftaa wa al-Buhuth (Fatwa Issuing and Research Department), outlines basic justifications for the practice of slavery, particularly as regards concubines.
When it comes to looking at the Islamic State, a significant problem for research is that much of the content coming out of Islamic State-controlled territory is propaganda, primarily in the form of high quality videos and photo releases from the Islamic State's official media outlets. Though there is some important analysis to be done on this propaganda- see the work of Charlie Winter, for instance, analysing the themes in-depth, and a more recent piece by Aaron Zelin suggesting a decline in quality of output- I myself find that after a while the monitoring of the content becomes rather predictable. For example, photo streams continue to centre around familiar motifs like battles, scenes of daily life in Islamic State-controlled towns and villages, implementation of Islamic justice, photos of natural beauty, and the like. In the videos, one finds every now and then multiple releases centred around one theme, the most recent set consisting of threats to Saudi Arabia. Others included threats to Israel and support for a new Palestinian intifada, calls for jihadis in Somalia to pledge allegiance, and focus on the refugee crisis. Thanks to the 'masterplan' text Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State, we know that such campaigns are centrally directed.
Readers of this blog will be familiar with my coverage of the jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, which is of Iraqi origin and expanded into Syria. For example, see here for a general overview of the group in early 2014, here for the rapid decline and virtual dissolution of the group in Iraq on account of defections to the Islamic State through summer 2014, and here for the false claims of the dissolution of the group's Syrian branch in early 2015.
Below is my translation of a full history of the group written on Twitter in Arabic recently (late November) by one Abu al-Waleed al-Salafi, tracing the early ideological beginnings in Islamist trends in Kurdistan until the present day. The account below is insightful for a number of reasons, including:
(i) The account gives an overview of the emirate project the group established in Kurdistan prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is worth comparing with Islamic State governance today.
(ii) Defections from the Ansar al-Islam circles to Zarqawi's group and its successors were a long-standing problem, rooted in good part in ideological overlap and the latter's status as a kind of 'jihadi winning horse' within Iraq. The weakness of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq around the time of the fall of Mosul (June 2014) becomes particularly clear as this account reveals that the group debated whether it should act as a virtual auxiliary force for ISIS.
This problem was not confined to Jamaat Ansar al-Islam: the same analysis applies to more nationalist insurgent groups like the Ba'athist JRTN, which should be seen as auxiliaries of ISIS- rather than equals- at the time of the rapid advances in Iraq in the summer of 2014. While Ba'athists have admitted that they completely lost out to ISIS in the end, be wary of their spin, and that of Sunni tribesmen who long wanted to downplay ISIS, that they and other non-ISIS groups constituted the majority of the insurgency in 2014. The main exception is the Fallujah area that ISIS took many months to assert dominance over, finally defeating Jaysh al-Mujahideen in al-Karma to the east of the city in August 2014, some time after the declaration of the Caliphate (the city of Fallujah itself was taken over by May-June 2014).
(iii) The account also provides an explanation of the workings behind an attempted revival of operations in the Baghdad area after the rapid loss of members to the Islamic State through the latter half of 2014.
In the translated account I have provided occasional explanatory notes in square brackets including links for further reading. For ease of reading I have also divided the article into sections.
The first chapter of 'Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State' is a particularly interesting section on the subject of the announcement of the Caliphate. At first sight, the text appears to be odd in affirming that the announcement of the revived Caliphate was in the year 1427 AH, which corresponds to 2006 CE and appears to go against the convention that the Caliphate was announced on 29 June 2014 following the conquest of Mosul and other cities in Iraq, creating an entity controlling territory that spanned the borders of Syria and Iraq.
The Guardian today has a huge story based on a 'masterplan' text I leaked to the paper entitled 'Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State'. The text- likely written at some point between June and October 2014- concerns a variety of aspects of administration, including management of oil resources, composition of military ranks and propaganda. You can read the whole text, which I translated, here.
The sign-off notably says that admin cadres are to receive instruction in administration according to the text. The question then arises of how far the Islamic State is actually following this administrative plan. Here are a few thoughts of my own:
1. The text calls for breaking down the differences between muhajireen (foreign fighters) and ansar (local Iraqis and Syrians) by integrating them together in the military ranks, uniformly accepting a fundamentally Arabic and Islamic character to their identity of affiliation with the Caliphate alone. In the pre-Caliphate era, one will have noted the existence of foreign fighter battalions for what was then ISIS fundamentally based around single nationalities and ethnicities, such as Katiba al-Battar al-Libi (Libyan while attracting some Europeans of Maghrebi and north African origin) and the Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Battalion (Gazan). However, since the Caliphate declaration, these battalions have generally dropped off the radar of social media, and as colleague Michael Weiss was able to establish in an interview with an Islamic State defector, the Katiba al-Battar al-Libi was in fact disbanded for precisely these reasons of discouraging affiliations on ethnicity, which of course may give rise to loyalties beyond those owed to the Caliph.
2. Distinctions are made as to who must/need not be affiliated with the Islamic State in the oil and gas industries: while the oil and gas fields are themselves owned by the Islamic State and anyone who makes a direct investment in them must have an allegiance to the Caliph, those who wish to purchase the crude substance from the fields and then refine/transport/deal in the products, inside or outside the territory of the Caliphate, need not have this allegiance. Therefore, refiners, truckers and those who sell to civilians are not necessarily affiliated with the Islamic State, and the ultimate sale of oil to outside actors such as the territories of the rebels and the Assad regime, even though they are enemies of the Islamic State, is officially sanctioned and allowed. All of this has been well established and corroborated in reporting.
3. The text sanctions co-optation of personnel who worked under prior governments as a means to run projects under the Islamic State. In other words, when the Islamic State claims to provide services under its Diwan al-Khidamat, the personnel running the projects are often the same people who worked in the services offices of prior systems. This is particularly true of Iraq-controlled territories of the Islamic State, such as Mosul, where municipal office employees are working under Diwan al-Khidamat. Internal documents show an established pattern of compelling such personnel to return to work under threat of confiscating property. Compare also with the threats to confiscate property of medical personnel who leave Islamic State territory and will not work under its Diwan al-Siha.
4. The section on media is particularly interesting with regards to auxiliary media outlets. In analysis of Islamic State propaganda, one notes the existence of as shadowy 'Amaq News agency, which ostensibly uses more neutral language in its reports on Islamic State operations: e.g. "muqatilun" ('fighters') rather than "mujahidun". Further, while 'Amaq News covers military operations against external enemies and aspects of life under the Islamic State, it does not cover implementation of hudud punishments like cutting hands of thieves, or internal security operations featuring execution of spies. This exactly mirrors the plans outlined here.