Examining Islamic State’s state-building strategy

On 4 July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit of An-Nabi mosque in Mosul, Iraq, and announced the establishment of a new Islamic Caliphate, stretching across 35,000 square miles of territory from Raqqa in Syria to beyond Baghdad in Iraq. The so-called Islamic State (IS) has since expanded significantly across the Middle East, Africa and Asia as eight militant groups have sworn loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and have been accepted as new provinces of the expanded Islamic Caliphate. 

In spite of the worldwide attention focussed on the rise of the IS, and in particular its horrendous human rights violations and deadly worldwide terrorist attacks, there has yet to be a significant examination of one of the IS’s primary claims: that it has established a functioning and viable state across its various territories. My research project aims to address this gap by examining how and the extent to which the IS has managed to build a state across its Iraqi, Syrian, Nigerian and Libyan territories. Studying the IS’s approach to state-building, and the methods through which it attempts to gain control and impose order on its territory, is essential to understanding the group’s war tactics, territorial ambitions and long-term goals. 

With that in mind, I have a number of specific research questions that will provide further clarity on the IS’s motivations. I have chosen to compare the different state-building approaches employed by the IS in its Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan and Nigerian territories in order to see if the group has a common unified approach to creating a state or if it varies according to the local context in which the group operates. This comparative approach also allows me to determine which area (if any) has made the greatest advances towards establishing a state and how this has been achieved.

In addition, I am also focussing on how the IS has exploited traditional Islamic symbols and concepts to facilitate its state-building project. One obvious example is that the IS, like a multitude of other Islamist militant groups before it, have exploited Muslims’ historical reverence for the Caliphate institution in order to attract greater worldwide support. This support has led to the IS receiving a large influx of financial and human capital that has significantly aided its state-building ambitions.

My project will proceed in two phases. Whilst based in Geneva, I will undertake an analysis of the IS’s administrative and governing documents that have been uploaded by citizens living in Islamic State controlled areas. These documents give a unique insight into the type of state that Islamic State is attempting to establish. This initial phase will be followed by fieldwork in Turkey, Tunisia and Lebanon where I will conduct interviews with former residents of Islamic State territories in order to assess the veracity of my initial findings. 

Mr Matthew Bamber
Study Abroad Studentship