Weeks after the terrorists seized the city, as fighters roamed the streets and religious extremists rewrote the laws, an order rang out from the loudspeakers of local mosques. Public servants, the speakers blared, were to report to their former offices. To make sure every government worker got the message, the terrorists followed up with phone calls to supervisors.
The phone call reached Muhammad Nasser Hamoud, a 19-year-veteran of the Iraqi Directorate of Agriculture, behind the locked gate of his home, where he was hiding with his family. Terrified but unsure what else to do, he and his colleagues trudged back to their six-story office complex decorated with posters of seed hybrids. They arrived to find chairs lined up in neat rows.
The commander who strode in sat facing the room, his leg splayed out so that everyone could see the pistol holstered to his thigh. For a moment, the only sounds were the hurried prayers of the civil servants mumbling under their breath.
Their fears proved unfounded. The commander had a surprisingly tame request: Resume your jobs immediately. A sign-in sheet would be placed at the entrance to each department. Those who failed to show up would be punished.
Meetings like this one occurred throughout the territory controlled by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, in 2014. Soon municipal employees were back fixing potholes, painting crosswalks, repairing power lines and overseeing payroll.
“We had no choice but to go back to work,” said Hamoud. “We did the same job as before. Except we were now serving a terrorist group.”
The disheveled fighters who burst out of the desert more than three years ago founded a state that was acknowledged by no one except themselves. And yet for nearly three years, the Islamic State controlled a stretch of land that at one point was the size of Britain, with a population estimated at 12 million people. At its peak, it included a 100-mile coastline in Libya, a section of Nigeria’s lawless forests and a city in the Philippines, as well as colonies in at least 13 other countries. By far the largest city under their rule was Mosul.
Nearly all of that territory has now been lost, but what the terrorists left behind assists answer the troubling question of their longevity: How did a group whose spectacles of violence galvanized the world against it hold onto so much land for so long?
Part of the answer can be found in more than 15,000 pages of internal Islamic State documents I recovered during five trips to Iraq over more than a year.
The Islamic State built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage. It ran a marriage office that oversaw medical examinations to ensure that couples could have children. It issued birth certificates — printed on Islamic State stationery — to babies born under the caliphate’s black flag. It even ran its own department of motor vehicles.
The documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more able than the government it had replaced.
They also suggest that the terrorists learned from mistakes the United States made in 2003 after it invaded Iraq, including the decision to purge members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling party from their positions and bar them from future employment. That decree succeeded in erasing the Baathist state, but also gutted the country’s civil institutions, creating the power vacuum that groups like the Islamic State rushed to fill.
A little more than a decade later, after seizing huge tracts of Iraq and Syria, the terrorists tried a different tactic. They built their state on the back of the one that existed before, absorbing the administrative know-how of its hundreds of government cadres. An examination of how the group governed reveals a pattern of collaboration between the terrorists and the civilians under their yoke.
One of the keys to their success was their diversified revenue stream. The group drew its income from so many strands of the economy that airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple it.
Ledgers, receipt books and monthly budgets describe how the terrorists monetised every inch of territory they conquered, taxing every bushel of wheat, every litre of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled. From agriculture alone, they reaped hundreds of millions of dollars. Contrary to popular perception, the group was self-financed, not dependent on external donors.
More surprisingly, the documents provide further evidence that the tax revenue the Islamic State earned far outstripped income from oil sales.
The US-led coalition, trying to eject the Islamic State from the region, tried in vain to strangle the group by bombing its oil installations. It’s much harder to bomb a barley field. It was not until last summer that the terrorists abandoned Mosul, after a battle so intense that it was compared to the worst combat of World War II.
“We dismiss the Islamic State as savage. It is savage. We dismiss it as barbaric. It is barbaric. But at the same time these people realised the need to maintain institutions,” said Fawaz A Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.”
“The Islamic State’s capacity to govern is really as dangerous as their combatants,” he said.
The day after the meeting, Hamoud, a Sunni, returned to work and found that his department was now staffed 100 percent by Sunnis, the sect of Islam practiced by the terrorists. The Shia and Christian colleagues who previously shared his office had all fled.
The terrorists sent female employees home for good and closed the day care center. They shuttered the office’s legal department, saying disputes would now be handled according to God’s law alone.
But the biggest change came five months into the group’s rule. The change involved the very department Hamoud headed, which was responsible for renting government-owned land to farmers. The instructions were laid out in a 27-page manual emblazoned with the phrase “The Caliphate on the Path of Prophecy.” The handbook outlined the group’s plans for seizing property from the religious groups it had expelled and using it as the seed capital of the caliphate.
“Confiscation,” the manual says, will be applied to the property of every single “Shia, apostate, Christian, Nusayri and Yazidi based on a lawful order issued directly by the Ministry of the Judiciary.”
Hamoud’s office was instructed to make a comprehensive list of the properties owned by non-Sunnis — and to seize them for redistribution.
The confiscation did not stop at the land and homes of the families they chased out. An entire ministry was set up to collect and reallocates beds, tables, bookshelves — even the forks the terrorists took from the houses they seized. They called it the Ministry of War Spoils.
The Islamic State’s promise of taking care of its own, including free housing for foreign recruits, was one of the draws of the caliphate.
As 2014 blurred into 2015 and Hamoud and his colleagues helped keep the machinery of government running, Islamic State soldiers set out to remake every aspect of life in the city — starting with the role of women.
Billboards went up showing an image of a woman fully veiled. The terrorists commandeered a textile factory, which began manufacturing bales of regulation-length female clothing. Soon thousands of niqab sets were delivered to the market and women who did not cover up began to be fined.
As he walked to and from work, Hamoud began taking side streets to dodge the frequent executions that were being carried out in traffic circles and public squares. In one, a teenage girl accused of adultery was dragged out of a minivan and forced to her knees. Then a stone slab was dropped onto her head. On a bridge, the bodies of people accused of being spies swung from the railing.
But on the same thoroughfares, Hamoud noticed something that filled him with shame: The streets were visibly cleaner than they had been when the Iraqi government was in charge.
The street sweepers had not changed. What had was that the terrorists imposed a discipline that had been lacking, said a half-dozen sanitation employees who worked under the Islamic State and who were interviewed in three towns after the group was forced out.
“The only thing I could do during the time of government rule is to give a worker a one-day suspension without pay,” said Salim Ali Sultan, who oversaw garbage collection both for the Iraqi government and later for the Islamic State in the northern Iraqi town of Tel Kaif. “Under ISIS, they could be imprisoned.”
Residents also said that their taps were less likely to run dry, the sewers less likely to overflow and potholes fixed more quickly under the terrorists, even though there were now near-daily airstrikes.
On the western banks of the Tigris River, in a pulverized building, I found an abandoned briefcase that belonged to Yasir Issa Hassan, a young administrator of the Trade Division inside the Islamic State Ministry of Agriculture.
The briefcase shed light on the scope of the organisation’s revenue machine and offered a blueprint for how it worked.
The financial reports tallied over $19 million in transactions involving agriculture alone.
But perhaps the most lucrative tax was a religious tax known as zakat, which is considered one of the five pillars of Islam. It is calculated at 2.5 per cent of an individual’s assets, and up to 10 per cent for agricultural production.
It all added up to astonishing sums, as much as $800 million in annual tax revenue, according to a study by the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism.
Though the terrorists are gone, reminders of the Islamic State and their particular style of governance remain.
In the northern town of Tel Kaif, for example, residents recall how the terrorists conscripted a committee of electrical engineers to fix an overloaded power grid. They installed new circuit breakers, and for the first time, residents who had been accustomed to at most six hours of electricity a day could now reliably turn on lights.