For a period there was a debate over how the Islamic State and its predecessors Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq were organized. The two main concepts were of a decentralized networked organization of cells or a centralized bureaucratic one. The RAND Corporation recently released a report on the Islamic State of Iraq, “Foundations of the Islamic State, Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005-2010,” based upon captured documents from the group. What those papers revealed was that the Islamic State was based upon a hierarchical, top down model.
When the Iraq insurgency first began in 2003 a network might have been the best way to describe it. Iraqis would draw upon a number of identities and ties they had with others whether that be service in the military or intelligence agencies, Baath Party membership, tribes, mosques, extended families, etc. and form cells to carry out operations. Eventually these coalesced together in loose organizations. Eventually if the groups had staying power they became more highly organized.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, which would eventually become the Islamic State, was an established group with a highly organized structure. Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq were based upon an emir, with a deputy, and then separate committees for specific tasks like administration, security, military operations, etc. This structure was replicated at each level of the organization. What RAND found from its analysis of captured documents was that IS was set up almost identical to Al Qaeda. It hypothesized that bin Laden and his lieutenants promoted a specific type of administration to other groups, which Zarqawi and his followers picked up on. Many of the group’s leaders also had connections to Al Qaeda such as Abu Ayub al-Masri who took over after Zarqawi’s deaths. He was an Egyptian and follower of Aymenn al-Zawahiri. That cross mingling might have helped with adopting a similar organizational structure as well.
The top down, bureaucratic structure of the Islamic State is evident in its voracious record keeping. All of its captured papers show that the group loves documenting its members and activities. Who would have guessed that the most successful jihadist terrorist group in the world would love paper pushing so much. Its emphasis upon organization was what helped it run the territory it captured in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, this presented a huge vulnerability, because a successful raid on a base could turn over thousands of papers that would expose all of its workings. That happened in May 2015 when U.S. Special Forces killed Abu Sayaf in Syria, an Islamic State oil manager. The documents captured revealed hundreds of details about how the group was running its petroleum industry. That information was then put to use to destroy its infrastructure and undermine a major money maker for the group. Despite that threat, IS continues with its model because it provides the best means to manage its territory and keep track of its membership.
Faucon, Benoit and Coker, Margaret, “The Rise and Deadly Fall of Islamic State’s Oil Tycoon,” Wall Street Journal, 4/24/16
Johnson, Patrick, Shapiro, Jacob, Shatz, Howard, Bahney, Benjamin, Jung, Danielle, Ryan, Patrick, Wallace, Jonathan, “Foundations of the Islamic State, Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005-2010,” RAND Corporation, May 2016
McGrath, John, “An Army at War: Change in the Midst of Conflict,” Combat Studies Institute Press, 8/2-4/05