Conquer, control: the IS group's structure and strategy

Conquer, control: the IS group's structure and strategy
Analysis: The Islamic State group's strength lies within a structured administration and strict lines of command. Hassan Abu Haniyeh examines how it is able to hold territory in Iraq and Syria after it is overrun.
5 min read
04 March, 2015
Abu al-Athir Amr al-Abssi (c) leads the group's formidable media wing

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part analysis. Read part one here.

The Islamic State group's centralised organisational model is based on religious principles and modern needs.

The "caliph" heads the state, the consultative council (shura) and the important religious council within the consultative council.

The group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has used Arab and foreign members of the group, especially from Gulf Arab countries, in the group's religious and media arms.

Abu Bakr al-Qahtani and Othman al-Nazih al-Asiri from Saudi Arabia, and Abu Humam al-Athari from Bahrain were placed in charge of the group's religious affairs. The Syrian Abu Muhammad al-Adnani is the group's official spokesman and Abu al-Athir Amr al-Abssi, also from Syria, heads the media committees.

The bureau of the treasury (Bayt al-mal) manages the organisation's financial affairs.

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The Islamic authoritative council (Majlis al-hall wal aqd), which includes a large number of prominent IS members, acts as an advisory council for the organisation, despite the "caliph" having ultimate authority.

The announcement of the "caliphate" on 29 June 2014 was an important step by the group to solidify its centralised model. It was the final objective in the strategy of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda.

While al-Qaeda central had operated through cluster groups and fought what they called "defensive jihad", the rebellious Iraqi branch wanted to dominate a fixed geographical space through a centralised structure and a traditional regular army to "enable" the establishment of the "caliphate".

The IS group was successful in forming alliances with Iraqi Sunni forces and movements based on sectarian identity. The group managed to portray itself, due to its organisation, as having the ability to shield the Iraqi Sunni identity from attack by the sectarian policies of the then-Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

     The IS group was successful in forming alliances with Iraqi Sunni forces based on sectarian identity.

Throughout three years of Iraqi Sunni protests and the armed revolution in Syria, the IS group was able to convince many Sunnis that peaceful activism and political process were pointless. It painted the political struggle in Iraq in a purely sectarian light - and argued that Sunni-dominated countries in the region lack a clear strategy to deal with the Shia alliance led by Iran.

The group also entrenched the view that Iraq's Sunni political elite failed to challenge the corrupt politics built on sectarian foundations after the 2003 US invasion.

That situation perhaps led to influential Sunni forces in Iraq, composed of former army officers and tribal and insurgency groups to pledge allegiance to the IS group. Groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq, Hamas al-Iraq, 1920 Revolution Brigades, Ansar al-Sunna and the Naqshbandi Order were now operating under the banner of the IS group.

Military matters - the IS fighting force

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The IS group's most important body is the military council, whose membership varies according to the group's strength and the areas it dominates.

The head of the military council is also Baghdadi's deputy. Haji Bakr, a former officer in the Iraqi army, held this position until his death in January 2014. He was succeeded by Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Bilawi, who was killed in June 2014. The most recent incumbent is Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, who was reported to have been killed in December in Mosul. The council also has a chief of staff.

The military council is composed of the heads of "divisions", with each division being composed of three battallions of 300 to 350 fighters, with each of those divided into a number of 50 to 60-man units. There are also specialist assault and suicide bombing forces, logistical support forces, a sniper division and an explosives division - the group's "special forces".

The council acts as the main executive body, implementing policies in the provinces under its control, known as wilayat, the same name used in the historical Muslim empires.

There are currently 16 provinces under IS control in Iraq and Syria, and each province is subdivided into a number of districts. A strict hierarchy of "emirs" govern the provinces and districts. These include the military, security, religious and administrative emirs.

The military council works alongside the security and intelligence council, which is lead by a former Iraqi intelligence officer, Abu Ali al-Anbari.

     According to some estimates, the group has rallied 100,000 fighters since taking Mosul. However, its core military structure is estimated to be 25,000 men.

The security and intelligence council is charged with ensuring the personal security of the "caliph", protects the group against infiltration, manages the organisation's communications and operates specialist squads of suicide bombers and assassins that target "high value" individuals.

According to some estimates, the group has rallied 100,000 Iraqi and Syrian fighters to its flag since it took over Mosul last June. However, its core military structure is estimated to be 25,000 men.

Media plays a very important role in the IS group's operations. The group realised the exceptional power of imagery in conveying its political messages and spreading its jihadi ideology. Baghdadi developed his group's media capabilities through the creation of a properly funded and specialised media committee, led by Abssi.

This committee has been responsible for the appearance of numerous "media organisations" that produce and promote the IS group's propaganda and message, with a focus on video productions. The group has also produced a number of magazines in English and Arab and launched radio stations in Mosul and Raqqa, with plans to launch a television station.

Despite controlling large areas across Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has been able avoid any major divisions or rifts due to its cohesive structure and its firm ideology. The "caliphate" model employed by the group demands the strict obedience of its members in addition to an adherence to the organisation's structure and hierarchy.

READ part one of Hassan Abu Haniyeh's analysis of the Islamic State group.