Earlier this month, following the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto by Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, New Yorker writer George Packer noted that the group responsible for Goto's death appeared "less like a conventional authoritarian or totalitarian state than like a mass death cult." Packer was grappling with the political meaning of the Islamic State's mass violence, which has devastated civilian communities across Syria and Iraq since the group joined the Syrian civil war in mid 2013. The group, which has struggled to control its territory since international airstrikes began last September, has used public killings of foreign citizens like Goto to demonstrate its brutal authority to an international audience. It has treated civilians in Syria and Iraq with even greater malice; reports of massacres like the execution of over 500 civilians in Tikrit, Iraq, last June are all too common.
But is the Islamic State closer to a death cult, or to a formal “state,” as its name implies? Two major theories of the state indicate that violence is not abhorrent to—and in fact, may be inherent to—the establishment of a state. For German sociologist Max Weber, among the most widely cited political theorists on this topic, the modern secular state is a political organization that “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” within its borders. That is, the state is concerned with the exercise of power—specifically with the exercise of violent power. In Weberian terms, the state’s monopoly is a constant fixture of its administration’s authority: That administration either successfully secures its power, or it does not.
Over time, violence forms and transforms the operations of the state, ensuring its continuous oscillation between prosperity and decay.
The American political scientist and historian Charles Tilly, writing on the development of the state in early modern Europe, allows for much greater variation in the state’s use and abuse of violence. The European states under Tilly’s examination emerged as “protection rackets,” organizations that used violence against select populations, on others’ behalf, for political and financial gain. In early modern Europe, the evolution of the state was primarily a matter of the expansion and consolidation of this racket, of which territorial control was one among several objectives.
For Weber, the state’s eventual dominion comprises an obedient, professional administration—in contemporary terms, a bureaucracy. In Tilly’s European states, that bureaucracy is both a product of war-making and its beneficiary. Over time, violence forms and transforms the operations of the state, ensuring its continuous oscillation between prosperity and decay.
The Islamic State has certainly proven its ability to use violent power within its territory, and the group’s “cultish” violence has not insulated the group from the task of governance, another essential aspect of “stateness.” In retrospect, it is easy to see the harbingers of "stateness" in the Islamic State’s evolution since August 2013, when the rebel group’s fighters wrested control of Raqqa from other Syrian militias that had also occupied the city.
Iraq expert Charles Tripp describes the Islamic State as a "rentier caliphate," a political organization as concerned with the control and exploitation of the territories and populations it controls as with the Islamic values it espouses. The financial burdens of both administration and war have exposed the Islamic State to "some of the problems that come with running a state, rather than simply an insurgency," according to Tripp. These problems are frequently technocratic in nature, suggesting an organization of a more complex order than a simple rebel group.
Earlier this month, in a post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, political scientist Quinn Mecham wrote that the Islamic State fulfills many services typically provided by a state, including tax and labor acquisition, providing domestic security, and providing social services. Initially, the Islamic State governed Raqqa and its surrounding regions as a corporation would an acquired franchise, allowing the remnants of the city’s technocracy to subsist under the group’s control, according to British journalist Sarah Birke.
The Islamic State’s governing responsibilities in Raqqa expanded as the group’s control over the city deepened: Islamic State-affiliated administrators now levy sales and utilities taxes against the city’s businesses, and they distribute regular payments to a municipal civil service. The Raqqa administration is enabled by the group’s brutal violence in the territory it controls; revenues from taxation and racketeering increasingly fund the group’s military operations against local and international forces. “A significant black market,” including these local taxation programs, has now overtaken oil sales as the Islamic State’s primary source of revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
States also can commit the types of gruesome mass violence that prompt descriptions of non-state organizations like “mass death cult.” The public act of beheading, the Islamic State’s visual signature, is unfortunately familiar to those living under the rule of conventional states around the world
Outside Raqqa, the administration of the Islamic State varies widely. In more contested regions, such as those near the Syria-Iraq border under the partial grasp of local militias, the group has proven wary of more authoritarian measures of taxation, for fear of disrupting delicate power-sharing agreements. In these areas, Islamic State fighters have set up checkpoints at crossings along major trade routes. Protection taxes collected from local merchants at these checkpoints provide revenues to the group, while leaving other pre-existing local taxation agreements intact.
A “state,” as defined by political scientists, would do these things, but so would an assortment of lesser non-state organizations more commonly used to describe the Islamic State’s relationship with the governments of Syria and Iraq: a rebel group, an insurgency, or, at a smaller scale, a militia.
As American political scientist Zac Mampilly observes in his work on "rebel governance," rebel activities in territories they at least partially control often mimic those of the state they oppose. Groups unaffiliated with either official state organizations or armed rebel groups also offer state-like social services where the central state cannot or will not, as in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In some areas, these services almost completely replace similar activities by the central state. Elsewhere, these activities may operate alongside or in contest with those of the central state or a different, local organization.
States also can commit the types of gruesome mass violence that prompt descriptions of non-state organizations like “mass death cult.” The public act of beheading, the Islamic State’s visual signature, is unfortunately familiar to those living under the rule of conventional states around the world: Early last August, the Saudi Arabian government beheaded 19 people, more than one per day, according to Human Rights Watch. In Syria, the group’s original battleground, the government in Damascus and its affiliates have killed upwards of 190,000, including tens of thousands of civilians, since the country’s civil war began in early 2011, according to United Nations human rights officials.
Civilians living in the Syrian and Iraqi territories the Islamic State controls experience both its violence and its governance in vastly different ways. In cities like Raqqa, a small population of compliant civilians may receive reciprocal services from a withering civil service, while many more across Syria and Iraq experience waves of mass violence intended to subdue that population under the Islamic State’s authority. These variations suggest that, far from the unitary body its name implies, the Islamic State is better understood as a loose, hybrid affiliation of disparate institutions, as conventional in its “stateness” as it is unconventional.