Shafaq News/ Between 2014-2019, the Islamic State undertook an ambitious governance project in Iraq and Syria that attempted to replicate and mimic the functions, institutions, and structure of contemporary nation-states. At its peak, the Islamic State’s state comprised an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers (an area equivalent to the size of Portugal) and the group governed the lives of eight million civilians residing in its territory. The experiences of civilians living in Islamic State-controlled territory varied widely. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians fled the Islamic State’s territory as soon as they could, many of those civilians who remained engaged in diverse forms of everyday resistance against their Islamic State occupiers, while an unknown number of civilians were the victims of the group’s systematic mass killings, rape, and torture policies.
However, this article focuses on a group of persons who have received little attention but played a key role in the development of the Islamic State: local civilian employees of the group. These Iraqi and Syrian civilians were employed by one of the Islamic State’s federal or provincial governing institutions for a specific role and in return received a salary, as well as frequently other financial and material bonuses. However, the Islamic State’s civilian employees did not necessarily pledge allegiance to the group nor did they necessarily become members. But taken as a whole, civilian employees were fundamental to the operation of the Islamic State’s state; they formed the majority of employees that staffed the vast number of governing institutions that the Islamic State created during the first years of its rule.
It is safe to assume there are many thousands of surviving former civilian employees of the Islamic State. They represent a potentially significant challenge. Many civilian employees presumably remain in their communities and represent a potential workforce for any future iterations of the Islamic State. However, significant numbers have also been detained in Syria and Iraq, with little transitional justicea or reintegration processes in place. According to Human Rights Watch, Iraqi civilian employees affiliated with the Islamic State have been “subject to prosecution for their role in aiding or providing support to a terrorist organization.” Courts in northeast Syria run under the auspices of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria have distinguished between civilian and armed membership of the Islamic State. Sentences for civilian employees are one to two years of imprisonment instead of five to 10 years. However, up until 2021, only 8,000 Syrians had been prosecuted in these courts. It is estimated that it would take at least another 13 years to prosecute the Syrians who are in detention in these camps, without even considering the Iraqis or other foreign persons currently detained in northeast Syria.
This article first provides an overview of the evolving role of civilian employees in the Islamic State’s attempt to build a state, with the group becoming less reliant on them as the caliphate project started to collapse. It then secondly details the qualitative differences between those employees who were also members of the Islamic State and those who were not. This article then thirdly examines how civilian employees joined and left the Islamic State. The degree of culpability of the Islamic State’s civilian workforce in its crimes should be a key question for prosecutors. The fourth section of the article examines the ability of civilian employees to push back against the Islamic State, or in other words, their degree of moral agency. The fifth and final section outlines some conclusions.
The article is primarily based on interviews that the author personally conducted with 43 former Islamic State civilian employees in Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, who worked for the Islamic State for at least three months between 2014-2019. A database of primary governing documents released by the Islamic State’s provincial governing institutions are used as supporting evidence. These interviews were conducted as part of a larger doctoral project investigating the history, effectiveness, and internal variation within the Islamic State’s governance project.
It is important to add a caveat to this article’s findings. Interviewees may have played down their involvement with the Islamic State and played up the degree to which they were coerced to work for the group. Additionally, they could suffer from recall bias as the interviews took place up to two years after the recapture of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. There are, however, some factors that bolster confidence in the findings. Firstly, all interviewees were assured that their identities would be kept anonymous and none were interviewed in detention settings. Further, interviewees were located through fixers personally trusted by the interviewee or through the network of the author. Finally, as part of his wider doctoral project, the author interviewed an additional 73 former Islamic State members and ordinary civilians who resided in Islamic State-controlled territory and has coded more than 1,000 internal Islamic State governing documents. These additional interviews and governing documents have been used to verify, as much as possible, the testimony of the civilian employees and to disregard those claims that seem to be clear fabrications.
1: The Changing Role of Civilian Employees in the Islamic State
Although the Islamic State has a two-decade history of governance and state-building in Iraq,10 its state-building project between 2014-2019 was by far its most extensive and lengthy. The Islamic State’s territorial control ebbed and flowed over time, but at its peak in 2015, its state stretched across an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers and it governed a population of around eight million Iraqi and Syrian residents.
The Islamic State had a clear vision of its state structure and it closely resembled those of contemporary nation-states. The Islamic State’s state was composed of a mixture of federal and provincial institutions, as evidenced by both a video that the Islamic State released in 2016 explaining its state structure and internal Islamic State governing documents. At the federal level, the head of the Islamic State was the ‘caliph’ who acted as the executive and was tasked with upholding religion in the state and ensuring that all governance was aligned with the group’s conception of sharia law. The caliph was supported in these tasks by a Shura Council, a council of six to 12 clerics, who picked the new caliph if required. The Delegated Committee was a legislative body of the most senior Islamic State operatives, fluctuating between five and nine members, who communicated and implemented laws and oversaw all provinces of the Islamic State and its associated offices and committees.
At the provincial level, the Islamic State divided the entirety of Syria and Iraq into 19 provinces that approximately aligned with the previous governorate boundaries of the Iraqi and Syrian states. Within each province, the caliph appointed a governor who was in charge of the running and security of the province but who was ultimately answerable to the Delegated Committee. The Islamic State envisioned having 14 ministry offices in each province under the oversight of the governor. Alongside these provincial institutions, the Islamic State had a further six specialized offices and committees that included a specific office for both its media operations and the administration of incoming foreign members.
Although the Islamic State only controlled 13 of its planned 19 provinces and its effectiveness in implementing its state varied, the Islamic State did establish a large number of governing institutions in some of its provinces, including specific ministries and offices for healthcare, education, taxes, public services, agriculture, real estate, judiciary, ‘Islamic’ police, and security, among many others. In those provinces such as Nineveh and Raqqa where the Islamic State faced less armed resistance during the initial stages of its takeover and controlled for longer periods of time, it managed to establish, for a limited period of time, this full array of governing institutions. However, in provinces such as Homs, Kirkuk, and Aleppo where the Islamic State only had intermittent control and its takeover attempts were to a greater degree contested by force, it did not develop its state beyond basic security, police, and judicial provision.
How many civilian workers did the Islamic State cumulatively employ during the ‘caliphate’ years and how many survive? This is a difficult question to answer. The most extensive analysis of Islamic State payrolls documents to date, published in June 2021 by Combating Terrorism Center researcher Daniel Milton, suggests that the group had at least 60,000 males in late 2016 alone on its payroll in Iraq, although this number includes almost 13,000 deceased ‘martyrs.’ The total was derived from tallying unique identification numbers (census numbers) assigned by the Islamic State in internal documents, which were subsequently captured by the U.S. military.
The documents examined by the Combating Terrorism Center appear to have included muba`yain (civilian workers who had pledged allegiance), but it cannot be said with certainty that they also included munasirin (civilian workers who had yet to pledge allegiance). A document from the Islamic State’s Central Administration for Human Resources to the group’s central government body, the Delegated Committee, that is cited by Milton reads: “In case a new munasir continues at work in the ranks of the Islamic State within the sector he first joins for a period of 30 days, then this munasir brother has the right to give bay’a, a census number should be issued for him, and monthly salary should be paid for him.” One reading is that after the probation period of 30 days, munasirin were provided a census number, a monthly salary, and the option to swear bay`a and thus join the ranks of the muba`yain. If this reading is correct, it suggests that the census-number-assigned workforce examined in the CTC study encompasses those payroll workers who decided after the 30 days to swear allegiance (muba`yain) as well as those who did not (munasirin). An alternative interpretation is that munasirin were only provided a census number after they swore bay`a and thus became muba`yain. If that was the case, then the CTC study would only encompass muba`yain. More research is needed to provide clarity on this point.
Milton finds that 18.5 percent of the those on the payroll who could be categorized into a specific ministry were employed in the Islamic State’s non-military governance institutions with the largest proportion of persons working for the ‘Judgement and Grievances,’ ‘Public Security,’ and ‘Education’ offices. The rest were assigned to work for the Ministry of Soldiery, with many but not all assigned to military units. Scaling up and with the caveat that this is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, this suggests over 11,000 Islamic State employees were working at some point in civilian roles in Iraq alone. Assuming that the Syrian side of the Islamic State’s operation is similar, then it might be assumed that more than 22,000 employees worked at some point in civilian roles in both countries, not including civilians working for the Ministry of Soldiery. Given these individuals were not playing fighting roles, it seems safe to assume that a significant proportion—many thousands—survived the conflict.
The Islamic State could not rely exclusively on employees from among its foreign and local members, and therefore had to rely on civilian employees to provide the expertise and competencies that its membership could not provide. Indeed, one of the first things that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did in his first videoed speech as caliph on July 4, 2014, was to make a recruitment call for “the scholars, fuqaha (experts in Islamic jurisprudence), and callers, especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors, and engineers of all specializations and fields.” As the Islamic State could not rely on bringing in sufficient numbers of these qualified persons solely from abroad, it instead had to rely on local Iraqis and Syrians that it governed over to fulfill these functions as teachers, doctors, engineers, nurses, bureaucrats, and civil servants.
Across the duration of the Islamic State’s state project, both the role of civilian employees and the group’s relationship to these employees changed. Over time, the Islamic State’s reliance on its civilian employees declined as it scaled back its state-like governing institutions in the latter stages of its territorial control. Instead, the Islamic State frequently redirected its remaining human and material resources to security and military functions or withdrew them entirely to its remaining strongholds, rather than continuing its attempts to run and staff a complete governing infrastructure in areas that it had tenuous territorial control over. The Islamic State’s state was drastically reduced in its final months of territorial control in each province; it had only two primary schools and one middle school operating on each side of the Mosul river, one field hospital in Mayadeen, and only four electrician employees in Deir ez-Zor. Therefore, the Islamic State no longer needed the civilian employees that its state had previously relied upon in the earlier stages of its rule.
2: Categories of Employees: Muba`yain and munasirin
The Islamic State broadly had two categories of employees that staffed its military and non-military governing institutions: muba`yain (both foreign and Iraqi and Syrian persons who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and munasirin (alternatively called al-Ansar, local Iraqi and Syrian civilians who worked for the Islamic State but did not pledge allegiance). The Islamic State made a clear distinction between these two categories of employees in terms of their job responsibilities, salaries, benefits, and treatment at work.
Employees with positions of leadership and responsibility within the Islamic State’s state—including emirs (heads) of local governing offices and members of al-Hisbah (morality police) and the Islamic Police—were required to be a muba`yain. The Islamic State did not trust its munasirin to carry out these key roles, and therefore, they were exclusively filled by foreign Islamic State members or local Iraqis and Syrians who had pledged allegiance. Many of the munasirin interviewees complained about their Islamic State bosses who were placed in these positions purely based on their allegiance to the Islamic State rather than their competency for the position. Employees in the healthcare, natural resources, public services, and education institutions spoke out about the incompetence of the muba`yain that impacted their ability to do their jobs. A lawyer who worked for the Islamic State described the Egyptian emir of the Diwan al-Sihah (Ministry of Health): “He was an idiot, although supposedly he had a medical degree from Egypt. We had to request our medicine and equipment through him for the hospital, and he refused many requests for no reason and he didn’t listen to us. He brought in new rules about treating patients that led to many avoidable deaths.”
A further distinction between the two types of employee was the salaries and benefits the Islamic State paid to each group. The amount the Islamic State paid to its employees generally declined across the duration of its rule, including a well-documented pay cut of 50 percent to its fighters announced in November-December 2015. Although the amount that the Islamic State paid its employees varied between areas and over time, 14 interviewees who worked for Islamic State as engineers, medical staff, fighters, teachers, electricians, public service workers, or in antiquities brought up a consistent and large gap in renumeration between muba`yain and munasirin employees. These muba`yain and munasirin interviewees knew about the pay discrepancy from their own experience of being offered a pay increase for membership or from their own colleagues. A civilian employee who worked for the Islamic State as an engineer in the Administration of Public Services Office in Mosul stated that in 2016 munasirin were paid $95 a month, while muba’yain were paid a minimum of $450 a month as a base salary. Similarly, a doctor in 2015 who worked for the Islamic State in al-Barakah province was paid $150 a month while he claimed that doctors who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and worked in the Medical Administration earned $1,000 a month. This large salary differential similarly extended to the Islamic State’s military institutions. A former Free Syrian Army fighter who fought for the Islamic State in a battalion of munasirin in Deir ez-Zor in 2015 earned only $40 a month, with no bonus money for dependents, compared to his Islamic State contemporaries who earned between $70-100 a month, plus bonuses.
There is also a pattern of differential treatment at work between the two categories of employees. The Islamic State frequently gave more dangerous work to its munasirin employees as it regarded its members as a resource that needed greater protection than other employees. A munasir at the Administration of Electricity in the Diwan of Public Services in Mayadeen, Syria, complained that as a non-member civilian employee, he was sent to fix the broken electricity cables outside of the city and near the frontlines while muba`yain mainly did paperwork or safer household electricity inspections. An Islamic State munasir fighter from Deir ez-Zor complained that their battalions, which were composed entirely of munasirin, were sent to the frontlines (ribat) at the direction of their Islamic State member overseers: “We took our directions from an ISIS commander. In the five months there, we were always on the ribat—us and the other battalions. It did not matter if we lived or died.”
The Islamic State frequently attempted to turn its civilian employees into muba`yain by getting them to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi. The group used a mixture of coercive methods and financial and material incentives, including increased monthly salaries; promotions; benefits of better housing, cars, and motorcycles; and guaranteed electricity. An oil worker at al-Amr oilfield in Syria, where the emir of the oilfield offered an opportunity for all employees to become muba`yain, described the pitch: “They offered to double our salary of $450 and to move to an overseer role in the refinery. My closest colleague, from the same area of Deir ez-Zor, joined straight away and was given a $800 sign-on bonus. I was tempted for the money.”
The Islamic State also frequently used coercion to try to force some civilian employees to pledge allegiance and become members. A worker at an Islamic State ammunitions warehouse, described how he was coerced to become a member: “I was sent to a re-education course for five weeks because ISIS found out my brother had been a member of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. They made us read and recite the Qur’an every day—if I made a mistake we were beaten, if I lifted my eyes I was beaten. Eventually, after two weeks, I had enough, and asked how I could leave the camp and they said that I had to join ISIS. So I did. I had to pass a sharia test and then I pledged allegiance in front of the emir of the camp. I went back to the warehouse at first, but I quickly became a soldier.”
One takeaway from the author’s interviews was that over the duration of its five-year state project, the Islamic State’s pressure on its civilian employees to become muba`yain increased and became more explicit. Interviewees felt that this was due to the large reductions in both the number of overall Islamic State employees, and particularly, the number of skilled personnel among its cadres, caused both by employees leaving and being killed by the anti-Islamic State coalition. Several interviewees reported that they proactively left their jobs with the Islamic State because of the pressure to join the group and the fear that they would eventually be forcefully conscripted into becoming a muba`yain against their will. One of those persons was the oil worker in al-Amr oilfield: “I left in late 2015 as ISIS started interfering more and more with us; I was scared that they would make us join and then they could send us to other oilfields in dangerous areas.” This change in the Islamic State’s approach suggests it became preoccupied with the loyalty of its employees in the latter stages of its territorial control.
An Islamic State flag flies over the custom office of Syria’s Jarablus border gate as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in Gaziantep province, Turkey, on August 1, 2015. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
3: Joining and Leaving
The processes through which munasirin joined and left their employment varied substantially between Islamic State provinces and across the duration of the group’s rule. Each Islamic State provincial administration had a large degree of autonomy, with civilians working in similar positions in different provinces experiencing very different employment criteria. Three interviewees who respectively worked in public services in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and Mosul in late 2014 for the Islamic State described three different preconditions for employment: a three-week-long residential atonement and course in sharia in Raqqa, three compulsory morning sessions on the Qur’an and Islamic sciences held by an Islamic State member in Deir ez-Zor,32 and none at all in Mosul.
Although there is spatial and temporal variation, there are some general patterns in the Islamic State’s approach to civilian employee recruitment. In parts of its state, the group primarily relied on recruiting employees who had previously functioned in similar roles under the Iraqi government and Syrian regime. This appears to have been particularly the case in education, healthcare, and public services institutions. The Islamic State frequently forced civilian employees in these sectors to attend compulsory atonement and education courses on sharia law and the group’s manhaj (prophetic methodology) if they wanted to keep their jobs following the group’s takeover. Especially in education, teachers and administrators had to undergo compulsory courses that varied from a day to several weeks. Governing documents from the Islamic State show that education courses were compulsory in multiple provinces, although interviewees described the courses they attended very differently. According to an Arabic teacher from a village outside of Mosul who attended a week of morning sessions, “It was fairly easy, we just had to learn the tenets of the Islamic State and memorize the rules that we had to abide by.” Contrastingly, a mathematics teacher from Deir ez-Zor had a far harsher experience: “They accused us of being apostates and that we had to prove ourselves to them. Colleagues were beaten who spoke against them. I didn’t want to attend the course, or work for ISIS, but I needed the money. It was like a prison, but it went quickly.”
The Islamic State proactively recruited civilians who had worked for the Iraqi government and Syrian regime. All 11 of the interviewees who reported being approached in this way had worked in higher skills jobs desired by the Islamic State, including doctors, various types of engineers, teachers, accountants, and administrators. An electrical engineer from Deir ez-Zor who left his Syrian civil servant job during the civil war and opened up an internet café was recruited by the group: “I was approached by the Islamic State in my café as they needed engineers to fix the destroyed overhead cables. They found out about me from the other persons at the office and I decided to work for them as I didn’t make much under ISIS from the café.” However, sometimes the Islamic State’s approaches to former state employees failed. An interviewee who owned several school academies in Mosul and worked as a teacher in an Iraqi state school, was approached by the Islamic State in February 2015 to work in the group’s education administration. He declined due to his disagreement with their ideology and subsequently fled to Iraqi Kurdistan several months later.
For many civilians, the exact transition point from working for the Iraqi government and Syrian regime to becoming Islamic State employees was blurry as many of their responsibilities were the same and many continued to be paid by their former employers. It was only after one year of Islamic State rule, in July 2015, that the Iraqi government cut salary payments and pensions to civil servants in Islamic State-controlled areas. Islamic State employees during this time received both a salary from the Islamic State and the Iraqi government (which was taxed by the Islamic State at rates varying from 10-50 percent, according to interviewees). In Syria, the regime stopped paying its civil servants’ salaries before the Islamic State took over. However, in the Syrian oil and gas fields controlled by the Islamic State, salaries were still paid to Islamic State employees by accountants from Syrian state-affiliated gas companies as the Syrian regime had agreed to a deal with the group to ensure the continued functioning of those plants. These persons, therefore, worked as Islamic State employees, although they were at least partially paid by their previous state employers.
The often-blurry lines with respect to Islamic State employment has implications for both counterterrorism and ongoing prosecutorial efforts against the Islamic State. There is a tendency to assume that Islamic State employees consistently had full knowledge of whom they were working for and are therefore a legitimate target for prosecution. For some Islamic State civilian employees, however, it is clear that there was some ambiguity about who they were working for, which could lessen the degree of culpability at an individual level. It remains, however, a larger discussion whether the current dominant counterterrorism and legal framework that treats civilian employees as individuals legally culpable, regardless of the nuances of their relationship to a terrorist group, is fit for purpose in a conflict context where a group takes over control of a territory. Should a doctor who kept treating civilians in his village or town, but did so on the payroll of the Islamic State, be punished after the fact?
The process of quitting differed among the Islamic State’s civilian employees. Many interviewees said they simply left their positions and fled Islamic State territory in response to the group’s actions and the increased attacks by local actors and the global anti-Islamic State coalition. In the beginning of the Islamic State’s rule, civilian employees who left risked lethal reprisals against their family, confiscation of their property, and the danger of reprisals from Islamic State supporters in their new location.
The potentially brutal repercussions for quitting were laid out by several interviewees. The daughter of a doctor who worked for the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor until April 2015 revealed that her brother was taken prisoner by the Islamic State and they had to pay a $3,000 ransom to secure his release and that they received death threats in the Turkish border town to which they initially fled.42 A truck driver from Tadmur, employed by the Islamic State from September 2015 to transport items between Islamic State-occupied towns until he fled to Lebanon in February 2016, revealed that the group took his houses and money, labeled him an apostate, and threatened him with death if he returned to Syria.
A takeaway from the author’s interviews is that quitting as an Islamic State employee became easier as the Islamic State’s state project declined and the control over its employees and territory weakened. An accountant who worked for the Diwan al-Zakat in Raqqa fled in late 2016 to Turkey because she felt that the Islamic State did not have the resources to capture her or to threaten her in Turkey: “At that stage, ISIS were too busy fighting; I was scared to leave before then because I thought they would find me. But so many people left ISIS at that time, I hoped they would not want to exert the efforts to find me.” As the Islamic State’s territorial grip continued to decline from 2016 onward and the group devoted more resources to its military apparatus and consolidating its remaining territory, the trickle of Islamic State employees quitting became a flood. The employee at the Administration of Electricity in the Diwan of Public Services in Mayadeen in the group’s al-Khayr province, Syria, who remained until the Islamic State abandoned its territory in 2018, stated that there were only four employees left in 2017 from an original 16 who served most of Deir ez-Zor city and surrounding countryside.
In addition to taking the opportunity to flee when Islamic State control deteriorated, many civilian employees quit when the Islamic State cut both salaries and benefits to employees or stopped salary payments completely. There were a variety of different experiences when it came to attempts to leave because of salary issues. An engineer in the Administration of Public Services Office in Mosul, who left Islamic State employment in 2017 but remained in Nineveh province, described a simple process: “ISIS stopped paying my $65 a month salary for five months and we [my family] had no income. The emir [of the Office] refused to say when we would be paid. I needed to find work elsewhere, and so I told the emir that I was leaving. He understood and there was no problem.” Others, however, did not have such a straightforward disentanglement from their Islamic State employer. A doctor employed by the Diwan of Health in al-Barakah and Raqqa provinces throughout the duration of the Islamic State’s rule stated that he received around a third of his $55 a month salary from October 2016 and then no salary from January 2017 onward. He attempted to stop working in an Islamic State hospital and to only treat private clients in his neighborhood, but the group refused to let him leave and they threatened to label him an apostate, to execute him, and to detain his family.
4: Moral Agency
The degree to which those who worked for the Islamic State were willing accomplices to its crimes or acting under duress is an important question when it comes to prosecutorial attempts to establish justice for the group’s many victims.
The degree of moral responsibility that the Islamic State’s civilian employees had in their role is complicated. It could be expected that civilians working for an armed terror group would have little ability to push back against the group due to its overwhelming coercive power. Indeed, many civilian employees under the Islamic State had little choice but to follow the group’s edicts due to the fear of the consequences for themselves and their family. As an accountant at the Diwan al-Zakat in Raqqa between 2015-2016 described her work: “Whatever ISIS told me to do, I did it. The emir [a Moroccan ISIS member] of the Office followed us very closely. Several colleagues were arrested by al-Amniyiin [Islamic State intelligence police], they disappeared and were detained or killed. I didn’t want to end up like them.”
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that employees had no moral agency. Some of the Islamic State’s civilian employees found ways to push back and resist against the group. A common pattern among interviewees is that the more specialized nature of their role within the Islamic State’s state, the more room they had to make their own choices. A case in point were some employees in the Islamic State’s governing institutions for healthcare and oil and gas. In one case, a doctor who ran a private clinic in Deir ez-Zor was employed by the Islamic State to treat its fighters. Although the Islamic State wanted him to exclusively treat group members, he was allowed to keep his other civilian patients and frequently made Islamic State patients wait when they came to him for treatment. The doctor’s family mentioned that he could make these demands as the Islamic State desperately needed doctors and he was well respected within his community. Civilian employees in the Islamic State’s oil and gas sectors had a similar degree of room for maneuver. An engineer who worked for the Islamic State in refineries based in both the al-Tanak and al-Amr oilfields described numerous situations in which the civilian employees were able to push back against the Islamic State. In one instance, the Islamic State attempted to institute mandatory communal prayer regulations and to restrict Wi-Fi to the cafeteria rather than the bedrooms. Civilian employees refused and received no punishments or material sanctions.
Individual civilian employees with specialist expertise who worked in Islamic State governing institutions also reported having a large degree of autonomy. A businessman from Tadmur, who initially fled to Turkey and then returned and worked for the Islamic State for a year and a half, stated that his high level of specialism allowed him to set his own demands: “I could set my own boundaries with ISIS. They needed my network and they treated and paid me well. They tried to take my phones away from me and to shut down my internet business. I refused, explained that I needed it for work and they allowed me to keep it.”
Distinguishing the degree of moral agency that a particular individual possessed, after the fall of the caliphate, is very difficult for those seeking accountability for Islamic State crimes. However, preliminary findings from these interviewees suggest that contrary to some reports, civilian employees could have a degree of moral agency. Civilian employees with in-demand skills, a high degree of specialism, and of economic benefit to the Islamic State appear more likely to have had greater leverage to push back against the group.
5: Future Outlook and Conclusion
Understanding the unique role that Islamic State civilian employees played in its state is essential for analyzing the current evolution and potential future iterations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Many civilian employees of the Islamic State have presumably been able to continue living in their local area. However, many civilian employees have been detained in Iraqi or Syrian camps as suspected Islamic State ‘affiliates’ and housed alongside Islamic State fighters with limited prospects of facing prosecution in the near term nor transitional justice or rehabilitation initiatives. The numbers of Islamic State affiliates in these detention settings are not insignificant: Al-Hol is the largest Syrian IDP camp for people who were affiliated with the Islamic State or who fled the Islamic State-held territory, and in October 2020, there were 64,007 persons held there by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, of which 86 percent were Iraqi or Syrian. Iraq, at one time, maintained IDP camps that housed a total of 240,000 persons who were either affiliated with or lived in the Islamic State-controlled territory but has now closed all but two of those facilities. Given the size of the Islamic State civilian workforce, presumably a significant number of those detained with suspected connections to the group who were detained in Syria and Iraq were civilian employees and presumably a significant number are still alive.i
The procedure of prosecuting Islamic State civilian employees in Iraqi courts has been severely criticized for the swiftness of its trials, the overreliance on secret informants, and an effectively non-existent public defense system, among other issues.The attitudes of local (non-affiliated) Iraqis and Syrians toward punishment of the Islamic State civilian employees differs depending on both the actions of the civilian employee and the role they had, and this has implications for reintegration. As an interviewee in a survey conducted by Vera Mironova stated: “There would have been no ISIS if civilians would not have helped them run their Islamic State. But by working for them, they helped the organization function. An Islamic State fighter could not go and kill people if he did not have a proper breakfast cooked by a civilian ISIS employee.”
The varying degree of moral agency enjoyed by Islamic State civilian employees has implications for criminal culpability. Many muba`yain were certainly coerced to become members of the Islamic State; however, the author’s interview data suggests that there were many civilian employees who ignored the Islamic State’s demands and choose to remain as munasirin rather than becoming members, despite the threat of direct violence and material and financial incentives. In general, there has been a tendency within prosecuting authorities—and within the wider counterterrorism community generally—not to differentiate between these two categories of employees and to treat Islamic State ‘affiliates’ as one homogenous category. However, this article has shown that there are substantive differences between the two categories and that civilian employees often did not know they had joined Islamic State and often had limited moral agency. The focus of both prosecuting authorities and the counterterrorism community assessing current threats should therefore be placed on prosecuting muba`yain who willingly joined the group.
The Islamic State still retains its state-building ambition with an additional ideological desire of restoring its ‘fallen caliphate.’ Any Islamic State attempt at rebuilding its state will again require the extensive use of civilian employees. The many thousands of surviving former civilian employees represent a potential recruitment pool for a future workforce for another Islamic State caliphate project. There are certainly grievances the Islamic State could exploit. Many of its former civilian workers are in long-term detention in often dire sanitary conditions, with little prospects of facing a fair trial or reintegration, while others face discrimination and difficulties building a livelihood. A displaced gas engineer from Homs, now residing in Turkey, told the author: “I fled Syria in 2017 as I did not want to be in prison. They [the SDF] know I worked for Islamic State and they will punish me. I cannot find any real work now, only laboring for a few hours. I hated Islamic State, of course, but they let me work and paid me well some of the time. If it was between this and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State.”
Understanding the Islamic State’s categorization of, use of, and reliance on civilian employees is, therefore, not only of interest to prosecutors and the counterterrorism community but also essential for analyzing the potential future trajectory of the group’s state-building project.
Originally published on the Combating Terrorism Center