“The Legal Foundations of the Islamic State,” By Mara Revkin

The Legal Foundations of the Islamic State
By Mara Revkin – @MaraRevkin
December 17, 2014 for Syria Comment

Notoriously violent groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), and the Taliban are widely assumed to be lawless organizations. Judge Abraham Sofaer, former Legal Adviser to the U.S. State Department, summed up this attitude when he stated in 1989, “Terrorists have no respect for law and no commitment to accept the rules of any legal system.” In this article, I explain why Sofaer’s claim is false. Evidence from recent and current insurgencies in the Middle East indicates that jihadist groups are in fact pre-occupied with the creation of law, justice, and order as a platform for state-building. Observers of Islamist insurgencies in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Mali, have noted that one of the first things that jihadist groups do when they take over new territory is to establish courts and other legal institutions that facilitate governance. In order to understand and effectively confront the dangers posed by violent Islamist groups, it is imperative that policymakers take seriously their internal legal infrastructure and state-building aspirations. Although IS and other insurgent groups are promoting a version of rule of law that is deeply incompatible with liberal democratic principles of justice and equality, studying jihadists’ legal systems is essential to understanding how they use law to create a foundation for political power and legitimacy.

Examples of lawmaking by Islamist insurgent groups are abundant:

  • The Taliban establishes courts and appoints judges in newly conquered territories. It has built a school system to train judges.
  • IS’s  “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appealed to judges and fuqaha’ (experts in Islamic jurisprudence) to join the Islamic state as one of his first acts of statesmanship. This targeted recruitment of legal experts is evidence of the centrality of law in al-Baghdadi’s state-building project.
  • IS deploys legal jurists known as shari’is alongside combatants in Syria to underscore the primacy of law. One of the functions of these embedded jurists is to advise military commanders on the legality of operations according to Islamic law, not unlike the role that American JAG lawyers play in monitoring and advising U.S. military commanders.
  • IS has created accountability mechanisms that enable civilians to seek legal redress for their grievances. For example, in early December, IS issued a document in Aleppo stating that civilians are entitled to legal redress through IS courts for alleged violations of their rights by IS combatants or commanders. In this video, an elderly civilian man describes how he successfully brought charges against an IS emir, who was subsequently convicted in an IS court and sent to prison.
  •  In December, IS distributed an illustrated pamphlet in Mosul clarifying the rules governing the treatment of non-Muslim female slaves. Although the pamphlet describes captured female slaves as “merely property” who can be bought, sold, beaten, and under certain conditions raped, the pamphlet does guarantee some very limited rights for captives. For example, a female slave can buy her freedom, a pregnant slave cannot be sold, and mothers cannot be separated from their children. The fact that IS would seek to impose any codified rules on the treatment of slaves – rather than allow their owners to exercise unlimited discretion – is another example of the many ways in which IS uses law to control populations in the territory it occupies.

The Paradox of Power and Constraint

Insurgent groups such as IS have the ability to wield violence and terror arbitrarily. Yet the examples above indicate that these groups frequently choose to create legal institutions and rules of warfare that restrict when and how they can they can use force against enemies. The fact that so many jihadist groups voluntarily tie their own hands by adopting legally binding rules of engagement suggests that insurgents derive strategic benefits – in terms of local support and legitimacy – when they establish systems of law and order. Legal scholars have long noted a paradoxical relationship between power and constraint, whereby leaders who voluntarily limit their own authority with self-imposed checks tend to enjoy greater popular support and therefore greater power. Insurgent groups that constrain themselves by establishing courts and other disciplinary institutions appear to be benefiting from this paradox.

 An Islamist rebel group in Aleppo called "the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Supporting the Oppressed" reviews applications for aid on Feb. 25. In addition to handing out aid, the Islamist group says it is carrying out civilian administration in parts of Aleppo. Hamid Khatib/Reuters/Landov Attorney Jamil Osman says he joined the court system to try to insert Syria's civil code into these proceedings. "There needs to be the presence of lawyers because, frankly, the Shariah people do not know the procedures of the judiciary," he says. But it's the religious ruling that Syrians want, says Osman. The memories of the corrupt court system of the regime of President Bashar Assad are too fresh. "Most people in Syria prefer to have this system in place because it creates a large amount of trust," Osman says. "People trust the religious scholars."

An Islamist rebel group in Aleppo called “the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Supporting the Oppressed” reviews applications for aid on Feb. 25, 2013. In addition to handing out aid, the Islamist group says it is carrying out civilian administration in parts of Aleppo. Hamid Khatib/Reuters/LandovAttorney Jamil Osman says he joined the court system because “it’s the religious ruling that Syrians want. The memories of the corrupt court system of the regime of President Bashar Assad are too fresh.” IS refused to join the Aleppo Sharia Council, but Shaykh Maqsuwd (الشيخ مقصود), who sits at the left with black headdress and serves as the head of the court, is an al-Nusra Judge. 


In Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, Islamist insurgencies have established justice systems that are widely perceived by civilians as more neutral, efficient, and committed to rule of law than state courts, which are frequently plagued by corruption, or in cases of extreme conflict such as Syria, have ceased to function at all. For example, in this video, a civilian resident of Idlib describes how the establishment of an IS court in the city has improved security and stability, and notes that residents prefer IS courts over the “corrupt courts” of the Assad regime. In another video, a Syrian civilian claims that IS courts have reduced crime by 90 percent. Although IS and other insurgent courts often inflict severe punishments and even torture, civilians may still view these courts as a fairer and more legitimate alternative to regime courts as long as their rulings – however punitive and harsh they may be – are administered according to consistent and transparent procedures.

There is strong historical support for the claim that law is an effective tool for legitimizing and maintaining political power in modern states, and if we think of insurgencies as “quasi-states,” “proto-states,” or even full-blown states – as IS purports to be – then we should expect to find that law plays as important a role in the formation of insurgent states as it did in the formation of modern bureaucracies.

The role of law in insurgent state-building is poorly understood, and this blog post will suggest some of the ways in which the creation of courts and justice systems may help insurgent groups to build legitimacy and consolidate power. In doing so, I draw on the history of legal institutionalization in modern Europe to argue that insurgent groups are using law to build political institutions in ways that are strikingly similar to processes of state formation that gave rise to Western industrialized bureaucracies.

Entrance to the Aleppo Sharia Commission in Aleppo City, headquartered in what was the Eye Hospital

The Legal Foundations of Insurgent States

Legal institutionalization has long been recognized as a critical phase in the consolidation of modern states, particularly in Europe, where Max Weber traced the origins of industrialized bureaucracies to a process of “legal-rational bureaucratization” in which traditional models of governance based on personal loyalty were gradually replaced by impersonal, “faceless” administrative institutions and objective legal rules. For those familiar with the history of bureaucratization in Europe, it should not be surprising that law is playing a similarly important role in the consolidation and expansion of the Islamic State. I outline below several of the ways in which IS, like any other state, is using law to strengthen its control over people and territory:

Legitimizing Violence

An essential criteria of statehood is the ability to claim a monopoly on legitimate violence that is justified by law. Islamist insurgent groups including IS appear to be more successful in gaining local support when they legitimize their use of violence through the establishment of a legal framework based on clear rules and procedures, as opposed to wielding violence arbitrarily. This claim is consistent with research suggesting that when insurgent groups resort to indiscriminate violence that is not disciplined by rules, civilians turn against them. As Jason Lyall has argued, “Indiscriminate violence can undermine an insurgent organization’s military effectiveness by driving a wedge between locals and insurgents.”

The alienating effects of arbitrary violence by Islamist groups were seen in the cases of Algeria (1990s) and Iraq (post-2001), where indiscriminate targeting of civilians by insurgent groups provoked a violent backlash. Al-Qaeda leaders later pointed to these unsuccessful insurgencies as cautionary lessons about the counterproductive consequences of unrestrained violence. For example, after the killing of former al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. intelligence recovered a letter in his possession from an Algerian al-Qaeda official who urged him to avoid repeating the mistakes of his country’s Armed Islamic Group: “[In] Algeria between 1994 and 1995 when [the GIA] was … on the verge of taking over the government … they destroyed themselves with their own hands with their lack of reason, delusions, ignoring the people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy and friendliness.” Similarly, a member of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Ansar al-Sharia, stated in an interview in 2012 that the group had “learned their lesson from Iraq,” and were focused on a “hearts and minds” campaign.

The cases of Iraq and Algeria suggest that one of the motivations underlying IS’s creation of an elaborate court system is to maintain discipline and cohesion within its own ranks and prevent the type of arbitrary violence that has undermined popular support for other Islamist insurgencies. Insurgencies are more successful when they develop internal regulatory mechanisms to ensure that violence – however extreme and brutal it may be – is only used according to well-defined rules and procedures, and IS is a clear example of this phenomenon. The practice of embedding jurists (shari’is) alongside combatants exemplifies the type of legal disciplinary mechanism that states create to justify and legitimize their monopoly on violence.

Discipline and Socialization

In addition to legitimizing violence, states have historically used law as a tool to discipline and socialize their citizens. Antonio Gramsci identified courts, along with schools, as the two most important instruments of state formation, citing the role of the “school as a positive educational function, and the courts as a repressive and negative educative function.” IS appears to be using judicial and law enforcement institutions in a similar manner to maintain discipline within its own ranks and to socially engineer the society that it aspires to govern. In a clear example of the disciplinary function of jihadist lawmaking, this video shows IS morality police (referred to as al-hisba) confiscating hundreds of containers of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, and lighting them on fire. IS also uses law as a disciplinary tool to regulate the behavior of its own fighters and leaders. For example, in October, IS executed two of its own fighters after they were tried and convicted on charges of banditry, spying, and embezzlement. In the same month, IS executed two of its own judges – both Kuwaiti nationals – after they were charged with spying. These examples illustrate how IS uses law to maintain internal discipline and obedience.


Another way in which law facilitates state-building is by enabling the enforcement of contracts that are essential to regulating social and economic relations, including not only concrete agreements concerning the exchange of property or money, but also the abstract “social contracts” that provide a basis for reciprocal rights and obligations between rulers and citizens. Anthony Giddens’ account of state formation emphasizes the importance of a “centralized legal order permitting and protecting an expanding range of contractual rights and obligations.” The Islamic State appears to be using written contracts to organize economic and political activities in a similar manner. For example, IS drafts and signs written contracts governing the sale of smuggled oil – a lucrative black market industry that generates millions of dollars a day. The fact that IS goes through the trouble of formalizing oil sales with written contracts suggests that the group is actively trying to legitimize its activities to its followers and to the world.

Legal Pluralism and Fragmentation in Syria

While it is clear that IS and other Islamist insurgent groups in Syria are using law to consolidate political power and legitimacy, it is important to note that different factions are promoting competing and sometimes irreconcilable interpretations of Islamic law. IS’s understanding of shari’a is the most conservative and orthodox – based strictly on the text of the Quran – but some of the more moderate Islamist groups are open to more flexible interpretations of Islamic law. The rivalry and fragmentation between different insurgent justice systems has given rise to a situation that law scholars recognize as “legal pluralism” or the coexistence of multiple systems of order within the same territorial jurisdiction.

The sharpest dispute between IS and other Islamist factions is over the permissibility of codifying (taqnīn) the shari’a in a written code. The Islamic State, like most other Salafi jihadist groups, fundamentally rejects the validity of codified or “man-made” law as an illegitimate violation of the principle of absolute divine sovereignty (tawhīd). According to this view, the shari’a is a complete and comprehensive body of law that can be interpreted and applied by judges; codification would unnecessarily distort its original meaning by introducing fallible human judgment.

Arguing against the strict textualist approach favored by IS, other Islamist factions and even a Salafi group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda are supporting the adoption of the Unified Arab Code (UAC), a codified body of law developed by the Arab League in the 1980s that is based primarily on the shari’a. In August, the Islamic Sham Organization (a revolutionary Islamic scholarly association) published a document recommending the adoption of the UAC. Islamic Sham makes several pragmatic arguments for codification, summarized by Maxwell Martin, including the claim that a written code will make it easier for judges to apply the law and will provide a stable legal order until a unified national judiciary is established. The document points to the drawbacks of allowing a diverse and decentralized assortment of insurgent courts to interpret and apply the law as they see fit – a chaotic scenario that could be remedied by the adoption of a written code to which judges could look for guidance.

The debate over whether to codify the shari’a or instead allow judges to interpret it freely has important implications for legal stability and eventual post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. Interestingly, the arguments for and against codification are reminiscent of debates in European history concerning the design of legal systems under conditions of civil war, where the choice was between common law systems (where judges have broad discretion to shape the law according to independent interpretation) and civil law systems in which judges are constrained by a written code.

Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer have argued that common law systems are easier to implement in peaceful contexts (citing the example of 12th-13th century England), whereas civil law systems are more appropriate for conflict-ridden states in which judges are likely to be subject to “bullying” and coercion (such as France). Under conditions of conflict, civil law systems supposedly insulate judges “from coercion by litigants through either violence or bribes.” This claim is relevant to the Syrian case, where a major obstacle to the establishment of a coherent and unified legal system will be the problem of distrust and infighting among rival factions.

The debate over the codification of Islamic law in Syria provides further evidence for my claim that insurgent groups use law to control people and territory in ways that are surprisingly similar to Western patterns of state formation. If Islamist insurgencies are understood as state-building projects, then it is logical to expect that law should play as important a role in the formation of IS’s caliphate as it did in the creation of Western bureaucracies. It is impossible to understand the rapid rise of the Islamic State without understanding the laws on which it is based.

Mara Revkin is a J.D./Ph.D. student in Political Science at Yale Law School/Yale University. She is on Twitter @MaraRevkin. Email mara.revkin@yale.edu

Will the Revolutionary Command Council be Syria’s New Rebel Government?

By Maxwell Martin, a researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Istanbul. He has previously written for Foreign Policy and Syria Comment. Follow him on Twitter @WilayatNowhere

RCC members at the organization's founding conference; Qays al-Sheikh

RCC members at the organization’s founding conference; Qays al-Sheikh seated second from right

Between November 27 and 29, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was formed after months of preparations, its backers having announced their intention that the RCC would be the unified body to lead the Syrian revolution. Although the RCC is chiefly a military unification initiative similar to the (now mostly defunct) Supreme Military Council (SMC), the body has also taken upon itself the ambitious task of administering territories in Syria no longer controlled by the regime. The choice of Qays al-Sheikh to lead the RCC is indicative of these ambitions; before becoming the leader of the new Council, al-Sheikh was one of the primary figures within the High Institute for the Syrian Judiciary, an organization that trains lawyers and jurists working in Syria’s opposition courts with some Qatari support. In its charter, the RCC claims for itself the right to “establish judicial institutions” and “issue all measures and promulgate laws that will organize the administration of the liberated territories,” highlighting its governance mission.

What is the RCC’s plan for administering territories outside of regime control? Will the RCC seek to supplant the opposition National Coalition (NC) and Interim Government (IG)? More importantly, is the RCC’s vision a viable solution to the fragmented provision of governance in areas outside of regime, Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra control?

In this post, I hope to sketch out some preliminary answers to these questions. In short, although the RCC has a more viable and practical plan to govern opposition-held territories than the NC or the IG, it still faces large obstacles to improving the provision of justice and other services in Syria. This post is based on my interviews with RCC head Qays al-Sheikh (Dec. 3), members of armed groups, employees of opposition courts, and members of local councils, as well as on open sources.

What is the RCC’s plan?

The RCC logo

The RCC logo

According to Qays al-Sheikh, the core of the RCC’s governance program will be the creation of an independent judiciary. However, rather than creating new judicial bodies from scratch, al-Sheikh says that existing opposition courts—mostly self-described sharia courts and commissions with the backing of local armed groups—are expected to participate. The RCC intends to transform these institutions into independent entities through the creation of a higher body with the power to intervene in and reform judicial policies and procedures. “The heart of the judicial project will be the creation of a mechanism in which lawyers and judges participate,” says al-Sheikh, “and that will ensure courts are operating effectively and set new rules for how jurists and judges are appointed.”

The RCC is considering a number of ways to remove opposition courts from the orbit of the armed groups that have backed them. The first is the creation of the Central Force, an army of 7,000+ formed from contributions from RCC component factions. Al-Sheikh noted that the central force, which is to fall under the authority of the RCC Military Office, would be used in part to enforce judicial rulings and to police non-compliant armed groups. Part of the Central Force’s mission is therefore intended to shield opposition courts from the direct influence individual armed groups by giving the courts the ability to enforce rulings against previously unaccountable factions.

The second is the creation of a central funding mechanism intended to wean the courts from their armed backers. “What has delayed [judicial independence] is the issue of funding, because the courts receive all of their funding from armed groups,” says al-Sheikh. “We know that the faction that takes funding from a source is completely subservient to that force, and we intend to become the main source of funds.” The source of the funding, however, is to come in the form of contributions from RCC component factions themselves.

As for the law to be applied within RCC-affiliated courts, a consensus around the Unified Arab Code (UAC)—a set of legal codes that resembles a civil code, but is based on a relatively strict interpretation of Islamic law—has emerged. Although the use of the UAC is contentious among Islamists—part of a larger debate over the permissibility of codifying Islamic law—the codes appear to have garnered a critical mass of support among the armed groups and religious associations that have endorsed the RCC.

This development is somewhat surprising given the relatively hardline ideology that some RCC factions espouse. For example, in August 2014, the Islamic Sham Organization, an activist salafi charity and religious association that is reportedly close to the Islamic Front, issued a ruling that not only deemed the UAC acceptable, but also encouraged its use in Syria until the revolution achieves its primary goal of toppling the regime. Even more surprisingly, Ahrar al-Sham—a salafi Islamic Front faction with links to al-Qaeda and one of the most important backers of the RCC—is reportedly on board with the use of the UAC within the RCC’s new governance scheme, while Muhammad ‘Alloush, the head of the RCC’s Political Committee and a member of Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic Front’s most powerful Damascus-area affiliate, noted the successful use of the code in opposition courts around Damascus.

However, amendments to the UAC within the RCC’s governance scheme are likely. Hardline factions will likely insist on modifying parts of the codes that do not conform with their interpretation of Islamic law. It is worth mentioning here that to many of its proponents, the UAC is Islamic law, it just happens to be codified, and is therefore not considered a mix of the sharia with other systems, even if parts of the UAC are amended to suit other interpretations. Hardline salafi-jihadi factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State—both of which have established their own judicial networks—would of course disagree with this explanation; in their view, the act of codifying Islamic law is ipso facto the mixing of Islamic law with man-made positive law, which is forbidden. This may have been one of the reasons, among others, that Jabhat al-Nusra rejected signing onto the RCC despite, according to Muhammad ‘Alloush, having been invited to do so.

The RCC does not appear to have a clearly articulated plan to create administrative governance entities that provide non-judicial services to the population. It is not clear either how the RCC intends to interface with the array of local administrative councils in opposition-held Syria, many of which are responsible for keeping water and power available, running schools, distributing aid, and providing other services. Local councils, many of which operate in areas where RCC component factions are strong, could, in theory, be compelled to collaborate more closely with the RCC or volunteer to do so. “We hope to have a role in this regard,” said Khalid Hammadi, member of the Kafranbel local council. “[Fursan al-Haqq] is the most important faction in Kafranbel and is one of the strongest supporters of the local council, and it is among the supporters of the [RCC].”

However, many local councils are dependent on the NC and the IG for support through their links with provincial councils, and they may be reluctant to collaborate exclusively with a potential rival entity unless it can give them a reason to do so. At the same time, the RCC and its component factions are not likely to disrupt the rudimentary but sufficient work of the local councils unless they can provide the material support and assistance necessary to replace or exceed what the NC and the IG could offer, an unlikely scenario.

Will the RCC seek to replace the National Coalition and the Interim Government?

Although members of the RCC, including al-Sheikh, have claimed that the new organization does not seek to replace or marginalize the NC or the IG, the RCC appears to pose a direct challenge to them. “The National Coalition and the Interim Government have not led the revolution well and have lost the people’s confidence,” says al-Sheikh. “There are good and wise people among them, but their performance has not led to victories.” Indeed, the sweeping powers the RCC claims for itself in its charter appear to be the opening shots from an organization seeking to claim the mantle of the revolution.

However, details provided about the RCC’s plans indicate that in some important respects, the organization will not actually conflict with the NC and the IG. In particular, the NC and IG have been unsuccessful in forging strong links to security and judicial actors inside the country, precisely the areas that the RCC appears most poised to address. At the same time, the RCC is, thus far, mostly silent in the area of administrative governance, where the NC and the IG actually hold some sway. As such, the RCC will not likely face meaningful resistance from the NC and the IG in the areas it hopes to have the greatest impact, nor does it yet have the vision and resources to replace the external opposition in all aspects of rebel governance.

The IG and the NC also enjoy something that the RCC is unlikely to replicate: a working relationship with Western governments. Because of the participation of hardline Islamic Front factions in the RCC, it is unlikely that the United States and other western governments will have the appetite to seriously engage with it, if at all. This is especially true after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry drew equivalence between major RCC-supporter Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State, among other terrorist organizations. At the same time, the West is unlikely to seriously consider abandoning the NC and the IG, organizations in which they have invested a not insignificant amount of time and resources, in favor of a new organization.

Still the RCC may yet carve out a role for itself as an important interlocutor for armed groups in the international arena, a role could have an impact on the course of the conflict. Recently, for example, when U.N. Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura wished to discuss a plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo city with individual rebel groups, they refused and sent RCC Head Qays al-Sheikh to bargain for them instead. If al-Sheikh is consistently called upon to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of RCC component factions and if they accept the outcomes of negotiations—a big if—the RCC may become an essential player the international community’s efforts to deescalate the conflict in Syria.

Will the RCC’s governance vision succeed?

Although the RCC has a better chance at putting together a functioning rebel government in Syria than the NC or the IG—primarily because of its strong links to some of the largest armed groups in opposition-held Syria—it still faces a number of obstacles that will likely prevent it from significantly improving the rebel administration.

Most importantly, the RCC will probably not be able to solve the problem of rebel fragmentation. The organization itself is unlikely to develop a strong command structure capable of dictating to the armed groups that support it. Instead, the RCC’s component factions are likely to retain their autonomy, their sources of funding, and their chain of command. That the RCC’s component factions include such a diverse array of groups, some of which—such as the Islamic Front—have tried and mostly failed to integrate in the past, raises doubts about the extent to which any will be willing to subjugate their autonomy to the RCC.

In terms of governance, persistent fragmentation will mean that the creation of unified, independent, and mutually acceptable judicial bodies that operate according to the same legal standards, policies, and procedures will entail high, and possibly prohibitive, transaction costs. Because the RCC will have trouble dictating to its component factions, it will have to rely on mutual cooperation between armed groups to implement shared governance plans. In practice, this means that the most important decisions—from appointing of judges to setting rules for the Central Force to deciding the structure and function of judicial bodies—will have to be tediously negotiated among a divisive group of armed actors, a process that hinders even like-minded jihadis in their efforts to build institutions. Usama Shannaq, an employee of an Aleppo countryside-area opposition court supported by two RCC factions, summed up these difficulties in his reaction to efforts to coax his court, which is backed by two RCC factions, to join another court network backed by other RCC factions:

“This [proposal] is lacking and it is impossible to unify the judiciary in this way because it will cancel out some courts and establish alternative ones, and this can only happen after consultations. Whoever wants to sign onto this initiative doesn’t know what his role is and where he will work. What is the judge’s role to which the factions agree? Can the factions even agree on a judge? Why are the factions involved? What makes them qualified? It’s possible that they would agree to a person who is not even a judge, or that there is a judge to whom the factions will not agree. With every plan on the table, its organizers try to shop it around.”

Compounding this problem is the lack of funding that could lure RCC factions and their associated governance bodies to become better integrated. The collective RCC treasury envisioned by al-Sheikh does not seem capable of effectively pooling funds because the free rider problem will likely emerge immediately. Without strong material inducements, the RCC may simply end up like the ill-fated SMC in both its military and its governance dimensions: a potential source of funds and equipment when available, but not an organization that can truly provide incentives for cooperation and punish non-compliance. The RCC could address this problem through securing its own sources of funding, potentially from sources in the Gulf, but details on such a plan were not provided.

Finally, governance gaps in the areas where RCC factions are strong will remain, and the space within which the RCC can even work is shrinking. The participation of a number of Western-backed groups is still in question, Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadi allies have embarked on their own quest to control and govern territory in large parts of Idlib province, and Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, a group that controls a swath of territory and a small network of courts west of Aleppo city, says it is not part of the RCC. Even in areas where RCC factions are strong, the RCC would still have to contend with the presence of jihadis and non-compliant sub-factions of member brigades possibly seeking to undermine its efforts.

As such, governance in opposition-held Syria is like to remain local, relatively uncoordinated, and beset by existing disagreements among RCC factions. However, populations living where RCC factions are strong may see minor improvements, particularly if the organization is successful in rotating qualified jurists among existing opposition judicial bodies.

On Camps and Cities: The Lived Experience of Displaced Syrians in Jordan

Matthew R Stevens by Matthew R. Stevens

The treatment of Syrian refugees living in urban centres in Jordan is changing radically. New laws, passed in July, are placing strict new limits on who can receive services and support from UNHCR, agencies, and the government.

Until recently, the Government of Jordan allowed all Syrians with refugee status to register for services from UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior in urban areas, with no questions or limitations. This policy meant that even those Syrians who left refugee camps through informal means were able to access monthly food vouchers, health care, and education for children, as well as being eligible for monthly or one-time aid packages allocated based on need. In July of 2014, this regulation changed: Syrians who lack proper bailout documentation are barred from receiving any services or support from the Government of Jordan, UNHCR, or other aid agencies.

Zaatari refugee camp Jordan

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Technically, a Jordanian sponsor is required to secure permission for Syrians to live in urban areas through a procedure referred to as a “bailout”. This sponsor is expected to provide for the family in question, in order to prevent Syrian families entering and influencing the employment and housing markets. After contacting a friend or relative willing to pledge support, processing bailout paperwork can take from a few days to several weeks.

Practically, however, the ideal bailout rarely exists. Over the past three years, leaving the camps informally has been extremely common—smugglers would often approach families the day they arrived with offers to leave that evening. Many Syrians were unaware that leaving the camp is considered illegal by the Jordanian Government, especially when security around Zaatari was less sophisticated and thus easier to evade. The majority of Syrian families who spent time in Zaatari and are now living in Irbid seem to have left by informal means.

Syrians who did secure sponsorship for their bailout documentation (either through friends and family or through bribes to strangers) were often abandoned to their own resources. The result is a large number of Syrians—more than 80% of the 600,000 living in Jordan—are living in urban centres and directly accessing the economy. Syrians have had a large impact on the housing and employment markets: rent is going up, wages are going down. While the negative impacts of Syrians on the Jordanian economy are often exaggerated, it is impossible to deny that the sudden arrival of such a large group has had a major effect on the economy in Irbid Governate.

In an attempt to counter this trend, in the past two months, the Government of Jordan has sharply shifted its policy towards Syrians living in urban areas. After mid-July 2014, UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior are no longer permitted to issue refugee status and identity documents (which are required to access to aid, health care, and education) for Syrians without proper bailout paperwork. Those who approach to apply are instructed to return to the camps where they were registered. While those who currently hold UNCHR and Government of Jordan documentation are able to retain access to these services, aid agencies canvassed were not able to confirm that they will be able to renew documentation when it expires.

It is difficult to emphasize how sharply this regulation may affect Syrian forced migrants living in Jordan. In the course of my research, I have not encountered a single household which relies on a Jordanian sponsor. The vast majority of former camp residents left informally, without following proper bailout procedures. If these households are not able to renew the documentation which grants access to services, their experiences in exile will shift sharply. Without access to WFP food vouchers, food security will quickly become an issue; those who qualify for monthly assistance from UNHCR will be pushed from a relatively secure life into negative coping strategies and desperation. Children will no longer have access to schooling; costs of private healthcare will render medical treatment unobtainable.

Theoretically, these hardships will act as push factors, forcing Syrians to return from urban areas to the camps. Yet initial reports from Azraq camp suggest that the new law has not slowed run-aways. Zaatari camp, the sprawling city-in-vitro that is commonly celebrated in the media, is closed to new arrivals; all Syrians now go to Azraq, where harsh conditions—no electricity, metal cabins with dirt floors deep in the desert, long walks to latrines and food distribution centres—are abhorrent to Syrians now living in urban apartments. Even substandard housing in Irbid Governate offers a proper floor and a private bathroom. No matter the hardships of living in cities, they do not compare to the absolute indignity of life in the camp. And this shows in the numbers: while Azraq supposedly holds 20,000 registered refugees, whispered rumours in Amman say that no more than 4,000 to 8,000 residents have remained. The rest have “escaped” (the word Syrians themselves use) to return to cities.

What, instead, will be the effects of these policies? Some UNHCR staff express fear that the future will bring more “underground” urban refugees, typical of the urban refugee situations in Cairo or Nairobi—uncounted, unmonitored, largely unassisted, actively hiding from aid agencies and the government alike. It is hard to see how the new regulations—understandable from a management standpoint but completely divorced from the lived experience of life in exile—will create a situation which is more stable, sustainable, or beneficial for either Jordanian host communities or displaced Syrians.

Matthew is an MA Candidate in the Department of Geography, affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies and the York Centre for International Security Studies, at York University, Canada. His research focuses on the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan. Find him on twitter at @Matt_R_Stevens or on the web at matthewrstevens.weebly.com

The Story of Shami Witness

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Those of you reading this post will probably know by now of the latest viral story to hit social media: namely, the revelation of the true identity of the most prominent Islamic State (IS) fanboy on Twitter by the pseudonym of ‘Shami Witness.’ Originally using the name ‘El Saltador’ (Spanish for ‘the jumper': a Western cultural reference that escapes my recall), he emerged on the Twitter scene around the beginning of 2013. At that time, he would often try to engage certain, more prominent Twitter users on issues related to the Islamic world, myself among them. For instance, one of his first tweets to me was to criticise a rather inane tweet I had written on a ‘Bangladesh Spring’ victory over Islamists.

His perspective was clearly that of an Islamist but- undoubtedly through prior tracking of social media- he seemed to have a broad knowledge of Syria’s Sunni insurgency with a particular focus on Salafi and jihadi groups, something that extended to Libya in particular and the wider Muslim world (also in his very early days, he had marketed himself out as an analyst on Libya, and had told a colleague of mine that he was a person of Libyan origin in the UK). Other indications of his Islamist leanings in those earlier times were his support for the Ikhwan-led government in Egypt- his main line of defence being that none of the Ikhwan’s opponents could necessarily do a better job at governance (not an unreasonable argument)- and his cheering on of Erdogan during the Gezi Park protests that erupted in May 2013. It was of course during this same period (i.e. April 2013 onwards) that IS’ predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged: at that early stage of ISIS’ existence it would not necessarily be fair to characterize him as an ISIS partisan. On the contrary he was more keen on the notion of ‘Islamic rebel/jihadi unity’, so to speak: something that could include ISIS. In short, his worldview was of an Islamist who at least had hope in the gradualist non-violent Islamisation projects of Erdogan and the Ikhwan in Egypt while showing sympathy for jihadis more generally. At this time too (i.e. late spring-early summer 2013), I had given him credit for correctly identifying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had appointed Omar al-Shishani as ISIS’ ‘northern’ amir in Syria, which was vindicated later in open source material.

Two events mark key points in Shami’s transformation from an apparently rather standard Islamist to the IS fanboy as so many have come to know him. Of course, taking perhaps a more Tacitean cynical view of him, one might argue that he was a hardline IS/ISIS etc. fan all along and merely used a more ‘moderate’ Islamist veneer to gain standing and credibility. Not having met him in real life, I do not wish to speculate along such lines. In any event, presenting his evolution as appeared on his Twitter timeline is worthwhile. The first event was the coup against the Ikhwan-led government, which enraged him considerably. Yet even after this point, he had not yet become a full-blown ISIS partisan, but rather was still willing to give credence to forces like Jabhat al-Nusra (Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate) and the Islamic Front coalition, which contrasts him with other prominent hardline ISIS fans at the time (most notably, @zhoof21, about whom more later). Thus, the second main turning point was the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and rebel groups at the start of 2014. This completes his definite public transformation into the ISIS/IS fanboy. It is also this stage, it should be noted, where many of the other pro-jihadi Twitter users take more definite sides in contrast to a previous attempt at jihadi brotherology. For example, Abdullah al-Ansari, who had expressed a personal preference for Jabhat al-Nusra but was willing to advertise ISIS material in 2013, turned strongly against ISIS, as did the user who called himself @troublejee.

Prior to January 2014, I had given Shami two opportunities for guest posts, one on the emergence of ‘Jaysh al-Islam’ (in which post he expressed approval of Jaysh al-Islam as a legitimate Islamic force, even if he believed it was a largely just a new front name for already existing Liwa al-Islam affiliates) and the other for his more general view of where jihadis fitted into the Syrian civil war dynamics. I had also made clear that those views were not indicative of my own, and my own published articles diverged quite sharply from his, something of which he himself was aware. For instance, my own view on the outbreak of infighting in Syria is that ISIS abused the welcome they had received from many rebels particularly those of Salafi leaning who wanted to entertain notions of ISIS as their ‘brothers’, whereas IS fanboys claim it was all part of a Western and Saudi-backed sinister conspiracy.

Nor will the spin of Shami or other IS fans convince me that jizya is anything other than Mafia-style extortion (a view I have always held). Shami’s own recognition of the sharp differences was what prompted him to request me to remove his guest posts from my site, believing it would only cause me trouble. It was his general courteousness towards me that led me to dub him a ‘friend’ despite not knowing him personally. Further, the status he gained meant that if ‘bro Shami’ approved of me, then the other IS fanboys on Twitter had reason not to harangue me: eventually though, in May a number of IS fanboys got on to my double game with some of them and purported to expose me as a ‘closet Jew’.

For all this, a mea culpa is the appropriate response. Those who say that Shami’s rise was partly facilitated by analysts giving him space to express his views are right: regardless of agreeing with his views or not, his prominence was increased.

But what of Shami’s wider role? Was the account used to ‘recruit for ISIS’ as CNN claims? Does his account’s deletion mean a ‘victory’ against IS? Here is my assessment:

1. It would not really be accurate to characterize Shami so much an ‘IS source’ as much as a ‘disseminator’, as Peter Neumann of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization puts it. The main scoop I can trace to Shami is the one mentioned above re. Omar al-Shishani’s appointment. The only other instance in which I can perhaps credit him for original information was on Liwa Thuwar Raqqa’s relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa, which, as it turned out, had always been troublesome, culminating in a formal expulsion of Liwa Thuwar Raqqa from Jabhat al-Nusra. If one looks back on Shami’s Twitter feed, as more and more official IS venues of information on Twitter emerged, much of the time he was simply retweeting. Shami’s role can therefore also be described as an ‘aggregator’ of IS content, something he also did in the days before official IS(IS) provincial news feeds and the like.

Aggregation of official material and other IS-related news is a sure way to attract foreign fighters on Twitter to follow you, even if the tone is not necessarily pro-IS. Fighting on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, where Internet access is intermittent at best, other duties occupy your time and the conflict is heavily localized, it can very difficult for a foreign fighter to get an idea of the overall picture unless he turns to an outside disseminator.

2. Shami’s role in a supposed ‘coordinated’ campaign of advancing IS propaganda- as well as his real influence- can be overstated. That is not to say that unofficial pro-IS accounts can’t run coordinated promotion campaigns (as we will see below), but Shami does not appear to have been part of such initiatives. Rather, like @zhoof21, he just came across as a very motivated fan and disseminator. Incidentally, whereas Shami had the public transformation from standard Islamist to hardcore IS supporter, @zhoof21’s subsequent account appears to have gone in the opposite direction, becoming a mere tweeter on ‘tawheed’ (‘monotheism’) and dropping the IS flag from his Twitter profile picture.

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Once a prominent ISIS disseminator in Arabic: @zhoof21, now @zhoof1 following suspension. Still ‘the jihadi spring’ but now completely avoiding IS content and solely tweeting on ‘tawheed’.

Other indications pointing away from the notion of IS somehow coordinating with Shami were Shami’s occasional divergences from IS positions. Most notably, he attempted to downplay the idea that IS had enslaved Yezidis- something IS later proudly admitted to in ‘Dabiq’ magazine (I had never doubted that Yezidis were at least being traded as slaves in a personal capacity). This followed on from a few IS Twitter users already boasting of the notion of Yezidi slaves.

As for Shami and the question of recruitment, no definite case has yet been shown to demonstrate that a foreign fighter/would-be recruit ended up joining/trying to join IS because he had been following Shami’s tweets or had interacted with Shami on direct messaging. Evidence in this regard can only be gleaned from the testimony of foreign fighters or would-be recruits. It will be of interest to see what emerges, if anything.

3. Despite his prominence, towards the end of his Tweeting career Shami had begun to attract reservations and suspicion among some IS supporters. Journalist Aris Roussinos remarked on Twitter recently: “Tbh I assumed @ShamiWitness was being kept alive as a honeypot” (i.e. to lure and trap would-be IS recruits). Not a wholly unreasonable hypothesis. One of the most glaring questions was that amid the Twitter crackdown on IS and pro-IS accounts that saw IS kicked off Twitter in an official capacity and some other prominent IS fanboys deleted multiple times, Shami’s account endured. Why? I had at first thought this was because Shami had perhaps exercised a degree of caution in his tweeting: avoiding to tweet the IS beheadings of Western hostages, perhaps? But in fact, I learnt from the Channel 4 expose that he had tweeted the video featuring Peter Kassig’s beheading multiple times. So what gives?

4. Amid the excitement about the disappearance of one of the most prominent IS-supporting accounts on Twitter, it is easy to become Anglophone-centric and forget that the majority of IS’ foreign fighters are from the Arab world, and that Arabic language recruitment is ultimately of greater importance to IS. In this regard, there is still an active, coordinated campaign by Arabic IS-unofficial media support outlets, regularly retweeting and disseminating IS material while also releasing their own co-produced content in support of IS. An archive of those outlets can be found here. Some of these groups include al-Nusra al-Maqdisia (‘Maqdisi [Palestinian] Support’), ‘The Media Front to Support IS’ and Fresh Air Media.

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A recent joint nasheed production by Maqdisi Support and Fresh Air Media in support of IS: “From Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem] we support you/give you victory.’

Speaking of Shami’s own native country in India, a local jihadi outfit- Ansar al-Tawheed, which pledged allegiance to IS in October- has also had its media wing busy in actively disseminating IS material in Indian subcontinent languages.

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Ansar al-Tawheed’s media wing- Isabah Media- recently released Baghdadi’s November speech ‘And even if the disbelievers hate’ in, among other languages, Urdu and Hindi.

These non-English/Western language campaigns for IS, which have generally continued unabated, unsurprisingly attract less attention because the media focus on social media is on recruitment of Westerners. Overlooking the Arabic side of IS’ foreign fighters recruitment base and contingents risks missing out on a big part of the story of IS’ growth.

Ultimately, the fundamental problem we face is that there is simply too much IS material being disseminated too rapidly for Twitter and social media to catch up to crack down comprehensively, for all the ‘degradation’ of IS’ official capacity to propagate on Twitter. This would seem to be the price of the world of open access social media. Hopefully, the Muslim world within in particular can develop counter-narratives.

Video: ISIS, Yazidis, and the Enslavement of Thousands of Women

Joshua Landis and Matthew Barber discuss the devastating IS campaign to plunder Mosul’s Christians and enslave thousands of Yazidi women:

(Watch on YouTube)