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Islamic State’s statehood project lies in tatters

After the Syrian government stopped paying him, a technician who had spent two decades pumping the country’s oil received an enticing offer: do the same work for the jihadists of the Islamic State — starting at three times the salary.

He was soon helping to fill tanker trucks with crude oil to fund the IS. But frequent executions of those suspected of spying and deadly airstrikes by government jets made life hard, and he grew angry that the country’s resources were financing the jihadists while schools and hospitals were being shut down.

“We thought they wanted to get rid of the regime, but they turned out to be thieves,” the technician said after fleeing to this city in southern Turkey.

The IS claims to be more than a militant group, selling itself as a government for the world’s Muslims that provides a range of services in the territory it controls.

But that statehood project is now in distress, perhaps more so than at any other time since the IS began seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, according to a range of interviews with people who have recently fled. Under pressure from airstrikes by several countries, and new ground offensives by Kurdish and Shiite militias, the jihadists are beginning to show the strain.

Some fighters have taken pay cuts, while others have quit and slipped away. Important services have been failing because of poor maintenance. And as its smuggling and oil businesses have faltered, the Islamic State has fallen back on ever-increasing taxes and tolls imposed on its squeezed citizens.

Those stresses could provide opportunities for the group’s many enemies, but they do not point to its imminent collapse.

Ground forces ready to fight the IS in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq are still lacking. And the group is adapting, keeping its international profile high by launching foreign attacks like those that brought down a Russian airliner in Egypt and paralysed Paris. It is also investing in new affiliates in countries like Libya, where it faces little resistance.

Hollow promises

But the promise of statehood on land it controls in Syria and Iraq remains the main factor distinguishing it from al-Qaida and a powerful draw for recruits from around the world.

That call to join the IS is still going out, and having an effect, on social media and within jihadist circles.

But its promises ring increasingly hollow as residents living in IS-controlled areas flee deprivation, an intensifying barrage of airstrikes and an organisation that many Sunni Muslims say has acted more like an organised-crime ring than their defender.

Even some residents who chose to stay when the jihadists took over are now paying smugglers to get them around checkpoints designed to keep them in.

“So many people are migrating,” said a teacher from the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour who fled to Turkey last month. “IS wants to build a new society, but they’ll end up all alone.”

Even as their cruelty has driven residents away, the jihadis have long recognized and acted on the need for skilled professionals to build statelike institutions.

The caliphate “is in more need than ever before for experts, professionals and specialists who can help contribute to strengthening its structure and tending to the needs of their Muslim brothers,” read an appeal last year in the group’s English-language magazine, Dabiq.

But that call has come up short, leaving the jihadis struggling to find people able to run oil equipment, fix electricity networks and provide medical care, former residents say.


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