ISIS Still Learning That Governing Is Super Hard

Iraq - Kurds retake the town of Makhmour from ISIS
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour — once controlled by ISIS — from defensive positions. Photo: Sebastian Meyer/Corbis

ISIS has been trying for years to convince everyone that it is a “state” and not just a band of terrorists spreading mayhem wherever they find an opening. Based on a new report from the New York Times, it has thus far failed at finding a solution to the eternal problem of running things — governing is super complicated. 

One big issue? All the people qualified to do anything useful fled ISIS-held territory ages ago — which means that some supremely inexperienced people have received unexpected promotions. In one town, the new guy in charge of doctors is reportedly a former construction worker. Taxes are also getting extremely high. 

None of these failures in Statehood 101 are entirely new, either. ISIS has sucked at running a caliphate for ages. A year ago, the Washington Post published a story titled, “The Islamic State is failing at being a state.” One U.S. officials said, ISIS doesn’t know how to do this stuff. When stuff breaks down, they get desperate. It doesn’t have a whole lot of engineers and staff to run the cities, so things are breaking down.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that people will get so fed up that ISIS has no one left to rule. People are trying to flee, but the barriers to doing so are growing. ISIS might not know how to deal with basic administration, but it has proven that it is adept at terrorizing people.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that ISIS is preventing Iraqis from leaving Ramadi; the Iraqi military has been dropping leaflets warning civilians that it is planning to attack the region. Snipers are watching potential exit routes, and few people have managed to escape. One resident told the JournalISIS is encircling us from all sides preventing us from leaving the city. We are desperate now. We can’t do anything … We have sick people with no medicine and there is no food to eat.” 

Iraqi military train at the Counter Terrorism Service training location, as observed by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Getty Images

And as ISIS makes life increasingly unbearable, it is making sure to offer an ever-proliferating variety of options in the only area of state-building it has excelled at so far — propaganda. Not only are ISIS affiliates spread out across the globe, disseminating positive material about the terrorist organization to the young or gullible, but the places it has taken over are also being coated with billboards, pamphlets, and murals, as Business Insider pointed out last week. Some of the propaganda doesn’t focus on ISIS’s more gruesome goals; sometimes they just provide a glimpse of what life might be like if the ISIS-run state wasn’t so terrible, a truly out-there fantasy. “Most of the group’s recent messaging focuses on the idea of an Islamic utopia,” Business Insider says, “in which Muslims have all their needs met and are free from oppression. ISIS releases photos of members repairing roads and power lines and shows markets overflowing with food and clothing.” 

Despite the awful conditions these residents have dealt with for more than a year, some of the propaganda appears to be working — some Iraqis are convinced, according to the Post, that the U.S. is helping ISIS, sending water bottles and chicken-and-dumplings MREs to the terrorists in an effort to get more oil from the region. 

ISIS Learns That Governing Is Super Hard