Islamic State : How it came about and how it works

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by Neil Godfrey

Anyone who wants to understand how the Islamic State came to be as formidable as it clearly is would welcome the a 28 minute BBC documentary currently available online, Islamic State: Bureaucracy and Brutality. If you don’t have 28 minutes and more or less trust the notes I took down as I listened to it then you are welcome to read on.

The source, Aimen Dean

The interviewee is Aimen Dean, a Saudi Arabian who spent twelve years inside the IS. He left Saudi Arabia in the 1990s to join the mujahideen in Bosnia. After that war ended he went to the Philippines and from there in 1997 to Afghanistan where he joined Al Qaeda.

Aimen says he became disillusioned by Al Qaeda’s drift towards terrorism so he became a spy for the West and worked for the British Foreign Office gathering and analysing information.

Comparing Al Qaeda

IS is a hundred times bigger that Al Qaeda ever was in terms of recruits, firepower and financial resources.

Al Qaeda is looked on with some contempt by IS now for having had no focus or clear direction. Al Qaeda operated through support for scattered cells or local autonomous franchises without any central structure or organization.

IS is tightly organized and focussed. IS considers Al Qaeda’s attention on America to be a waste of time and effort, a distraction from the real goal. What IS is aiming for is the overthrow of other states in the Middle East.

To accomplish this they understand that they must become an organized state power themselves with military power concentrated in a particular region.

IS has managed to take over a quarter of Iraq and a third of Syria because they have a proper, solid infrastructure, both financial and intelligence.

IS Bureaucracy

IS has a Department of the Public Good responsible for maintaining roads, cleaning the streets, street lighting, the provision of education. 

They control certain professional positions by their own licensing system. No one can become an imam in a mosque, a teacher in a school, a pharmacist, a doctor, a lawyer, until they attend a Shariah course for one week to obtain their licence. In other words they need a course in indoctrination before being permitted to practice.

Elitist isolationism, liberating the psychopath within

Aimen spoke of his conversations with a childhood friend of his who is now an IS judge. He is in his early 30s and very proud of having delivered 34 sentences of lashes, crucifixions, beheadings. He has no pity for his victims.

How to explain this pride? Aimen speaks of a “lust for authority [that] has been liberated by their interpretation of Islamic theology.”

There is a sense of elitist isolationism among IS jihadists that liberates them from “the psychopath within”. Most of us have some inner impulses towards cruel behaviour but our sense of guilt and conscience holds us back from hurting others. But if one can inflict cruelty while serving a cause and believe that one will be rewarded by God for it all in the after life then this is a truly liberating sensation that enables a liberation of these tendencies.

IS followers do not see themselves as part of this world. Aimen in conversation or debate with his friend asked him why they brand anyone who does not give them their full allegiance a hostile enemy. Aimen asked,

How can you say that 50-60,000 Muslims are right and 1.5 billion Muslims are wrong?

His chilling answer:

Remember, God annihilated all of humanity for the sake of twelve believers with Noah. We are the ark of survival. If all of humanity is annihilated for the same of the Truth then so be it. God did it.


You are not God.


God did it to set us an example to live by.

Today IS have small resources so their massacres are small now. What of the future when they gain more resources? They would not hesitate to destroy dams to flood whole (i.e. Shia) cities, to use chemical or nuclear weapons.  

The prophesied end-times

IS followers believe they are living in the end of time that was prophesied by Muhammad. The final battle is to be preceded by major conflicts. Unlike mainstream Muslims, however, they want to hasten those end times.

They see themselves as located in the centre of these prophesied events that are foretold for Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, North Africa and Syria. Syria in particular is the prime focus of the prophecies: it is where the ultimate battle to establish the Caliphate will take place. Syria is the crown jewel for the jihadist movements. It is to Syria that the prophecies tell them to go.

To so many potential recruits the current situation is a sign that the hand of God is paving the way for them to go to Syria to fight. Many would-be followers believe they are following the commands of Muhammad from 1400 years ago.

So the first step was the need to establish an Islamic state and a Caliphate, and that’s what they did. And that is when the split with Al Qaeda happened.

The Roots of IS

The beginnings of IS can be traced back to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, many of will recall, soon took the lead of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2005 he launched all-out war on Shia Muslims.

In 2006 he was killed in a US bombing attack. But by then his financial support had been secured with seed-corn finance that had enabled the launch of his campaign, and eventually IS.

The initial money came from the family of Saddam. Hundreds of millions of US dollars in cash was stolen from the Iraqi Central Bank by Saddam’s son. As he tried to fee Iraq Zarqawi’s men intercepted him.

But they used the money not for guns but to turn themselves into apparently legitimate entrepreneurs.

The bought up existing businesses: cafes, restaurants, farms, butcher shops, tailor shops, — especially those that were conveniently located close to government HQs and security HQs.

The purpose was for intelligence gathering and to recruit insiders.

This enabled them to plan a prison break in 2013 freeing 2,500 prisoners. They were able with their inside contacts able to arrange several other major prison breaks across Iraq soon afterwards.

So they managed to free thousands of jihadists.

IS has managed to take over a quarter of Iraq and a third of Syria because they have a proper, solid infrastructure, both financial and intelligence.

Their business network now includes the oilfields in IS territory. They produce oil for their own domestic use and also for sale abroad on the black market.

All this requires a huge number of professionals in service of IS.

How did they acquire these?

Where the Professionals came from

After the toppling of Saddam many secular Baathists simply converted to the Jihadist cause. That secular Baathists would do this seems strange but recall what happened when the US took over.

In 2004 the US decided to simply dismiss the Iraqi army and to dismiss most of Iraqi civil service. Parties in Iraq of 2004 and 2005 began to expel from the universities professors of economics, politics planning and urban administration because they were Baathists.

These sacked and isolated Baathists obviously needed money; they also needed protection and they needed to do something for a living. So many joined the jihadists.

So jihadists acquired oil engineers and business professionals all as a consequence of the fateful decision of 2003 and 2004.

The IS is accordingly able to effectively manage control of a population of over 8.5 million.

Once these professionals followed Saddam and now they follow the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new caliph.

Al-Baghdadi is an Islamic scholar who claims direct descent from Muhammad and says he’s born to the role.

At first he was a messenger between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Osama bin Laden. Then he became the message. After leading his fighters into Syria he declared himself leader of Islamic world. He is far more powerful than al Qaeda ever was.

Al-Baghdadi runs a far more disciplined and focussed organization than Al Qaeda ever was. IS is focussed on the region. It considers the obsession with America to be unhealthy. He sees the need to have a state with a concentration of firepower and force in a certain region. The aim and goal is to topple the Muslim regimes.

Where the fighters come from

20,000 volunteers have come from beyond Iraq and Syria: from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, UK, France, Belgium, Australia, US, Canada, to boost the ranks and to prove IS is an Islamic State. It is not an Arab state or an Iraqi or Syrian state but an Islamic state.

The bulk of fighters are Iraqis and Syrians, followed by Saudis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Turks, Chinese (hundreds) from Turkey. Turkey has accommodated 400,00 Chinese Muslims who have fled from China since 1950s till now.

What is behind the Chinese presence? China is the largest investor in Iraqi oil; and recruits come to gain access to training, and military experience, with a mind to take the jihad back to China.

Where the funding comes from

Migrants are also a vital source of external funding. Muslim communities who know an individual wants to join to fight jihad will give him money to buy a weapon and travel, and others hear of him and also support financially. This way an individual can accrue up to $10,000 — but no more otherwise they would have to declare it crossing borders.  This method has sustained volunteers for three decades now.

If 1000 recruits come to Syria each month, each with $10,000 …. you can see why IS has no problem getting money through its borders.

In many cases the donors know what the $ is for. They rationalize it by understanding that Western citizens pay taxes to fund their governments’ military operations so this is a similar form of financing. Many believe it is their duty to fund the military effort.  

Most charities are doing only good, but some of the smaller ones are providing indirect funding to IS, illegally bypassing rules against aid to IS.

They do this indirectly.

Part of IS expenses is in welfare payments: for widows, orphans, thousands of families are in need to be looked after as a result of war so IS looks for charities over the world who are sympathetic to take care of these families.

Thus IS money can be diverted to the military because someone else takes care of food, fuel, education needs of the people.

Now a similar covert business network exists for IS beyond its boundaries. IS established several entities in Turkey to import hospital beds, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, surgery equipment, to provide their fighters and the population with health services. There are many sympathetic communities in Turkey and to some extent in Jordan. A sympathizer only needs a clean record to become an export/import operation. He can import food, electronics, computers, cars to the IS from Turkey.

The Turkish government is in a bind. They know no one will rescue them when they suffer the consequences of attempting to dismantle IS finances. The terror campaign IS would launch in retaliation would halt the tourism industry and send the Turkish economy into freefall.

How does IS pay for the pharmaceuticals, laptops, cars, etc?

In the early days they used gold they had seized for foreign exchange. But last year gold traders became wary of IS links. So IS made their own mint and produced their own solid gold coins. The Western press laughed. But their own mint is a symbol of legitimacy and authority and hegemony as well as being an important money making scheme for them. By mid 2015 it will become the norm to see ISIS coins.

Much of this gold will have been looted from churches. Syria’s expert goldsmiths (Armenian Christians) are now in the service of IS minting the coins.

So the populations are coopted or coerced.

The solution?

Aimen says the IS is theologically driven and that it is here where we must tackle them. They need to be discredited ideologically and theologically. If we keep focusing on the military front and forget there is an ideological battle to be won there is no hope. By dropping bombs and killing 7 today only for 14 to join tomorrow is no solution.

What have we done! What can we do?


To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Islamic State : How it came about and how it works”

  1. IS followers believe they are living in the end of time that was prophesied by Muhammad. The final battle is to be preceded by major conflicts. Unlike mainstream Muslims, however, they want to hasten those end times.

    Oh, great. Insane End of Times Muslims, to go with our insane End of Times Christians. A matched set!

    So why am I not laughing? 😡

    1. Don’t forget the Samson Option entertained by some Israelis and the statement by Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren that Israel preferred to see the Islamic State take over Syria to having Assad continue his rule:

      “The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were affiliated with al-Qaeda.

      And, in June 2014, speaking as a former ambassador at an Aspen Institute conference, Oren expanded on his position, saying Israel would even prefer a victory by the brutal Islamic State over continuation of the Iranian-backed Assad in Syria. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

  2. “Insane End of Times Muslims, to go with our insane End of Times Christians.”

    I also felt that these ideas are more in line with Christian Zionist Dispensationalism(?) than mainstream Islam….
    Many mainstream Muslims feel Noah’s flood was local not global, Human beings have limited free-will so they can’t make “end times” happen faster, and the whole Caliphate business is weird too….but then, as many have noted—these guys do not seem to have a good grasp of mainstream Islam or Quran….
    The hostage released by ISIS—Didier Francois—seemed to confirm the view of political motivations in his interview with CNN…..

    A Few other pieces of the puzzle seem to be missing—Such as Saudi Financing and the influence of Wahabists…some findings also imply that the U.S. prison camps (for ex, Camp Bucca) after the Iraq invasion helped to start the infrastructure (networking and command structure) of these extremists…(not to mention it radicalized a lot of angry people in the first place)

    In some ways…ISIS is America’s shadow self—Nietzche said “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”—but that is what has happened here…The atrocities that the U.S committed in Iraq, but were hidden, are now displayed in the acts of ISIS for all the world to see….kidnapping people off the streets and torturing, sometimes killing them….the use of Depleted Uranium and white phosphorus in Iraq—the crusading mentality of some U.S. soldiers and mercenary organizations—all that brutality is being repeated…..

    I agree that a cycle of revenge is not helpful….But the Middle East must take blame (and responsibility) for what has happened too. After the Iraq war, instead of uniting for nation-building, the leaders were too caught up in profiteering, power politics, and tribalism….They let the anger build up and explode….failed nations, like failed communities (ghettos) get overrun by the worst elements of humanity….such communities and nations need to be built up….but, most importantly, a strong infrastructure of (incorruptible) law and justice needs to be built….
    The Iraqi’s, Afghani’s, Yemeni’s, Somali’s, Syrians, …and others who have been devastated by the American military-industrial complex must build their nations…this is not a task others can do for them….but what other’s can do is stop the wars—discourage our own nations from participating, enabling, or encouraging wars….or in propping up dictators and corrupt leaders of other nations….

    We also need to promote a new paradigm—one that sees all of humanity as stakeholders in the wellbeing of this planet and all her creatures.

  3. Interesting to see the one thing that puts a whole dent in the ISIS game plan is the Kurds.

    It’s been interesting to watch Kobani since mid-September last year, to see how close the Kurds did come to disaster…and then watch as things started to equalize, some false advantages of ISIS’ start to fall…then watch two weeks ago when the city became ISIS-free…and this week watch as ISIS’ middle- and tail-order collapsed so badly that the Kurds are regaining much of their canton again.

    So much for “invincible” ISIS.

  4. Great article!

    Just a couple of proofing errors (I think):

    Fourth paragraph (after Comparing Al Qaeda)

    “IS is a hundred times bitter that Al Qaeda ever was in terms of recruits, firepower and financial resources.”

    I’m assuming should read ‘a hundred times *better than* Al Qaeda…’

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