Camilla Shearman, Blog Writer

Recent reports on the financial revenue of the Islamic State (IS) show a thirty percent drop due to decreased oil production and lower tax revenue. The IHS analysis company found that revenue decreased from $80 million a month in the middle of last year to just $56 million in March of this year. This drop in revenue is primarily due to coalition air strikes on oil facilities and  loss of territory under IS control. Decreased revenue, however, carries consequences beyond a lower budget for IS activities, especially for the identity and long-term goals of the group, as well as how the international community understands atrocities conducted in the group’s territory.

The name “Islamic State” carries many implications for the identity, current activities, and future aspirations of the group. Indeed, the narrow version of Islam promoted by the Islamic State and the appeal of that type of Islam to the masses is often discussed. Yet what about the second half of the name of the group: the “state”? How does the IS conduct state-building activities, and how do these activities affect how we understand the conflict and genocidal activities occurring under the name of the Islamic State?

Since the formation of the IS, the “state” part of the group’s name has been critical. The IS envisions the return of Islamic rule in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond: not in the form of a modern state, but rather through the reinstatement of a caliphate. William McCants, a scholar of militant Islamism, points out that “in medieval Islamic thought, an emirate (imara), or government of a region, is subordinate to the “state” (dawla), the empire ruled by the caliph” (McCant, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, And Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State) The Islamic State, therefore, would supercede the power and control of modern states (or emirates) currently in power in the Middle East.

It is not, however, lost on the IS and its peers that creating the caliphate requires state-building activities. Osama Bin Laden was worried about the extreme violence the IS uses towards fellow Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, warning that without a “hearts and minds” campaign, the IS’ attempt at building a caliphate is futile (McCants). The IS needs doctors, infrastructure, and state services to convince citizens of the value of the caliphate. The lack of a “hearts and minds” campaign, combined with disorganisation and the Arab awakening in Iraq, were key reasons for the failure of the IS’ first attempt at establishing the caliphate (McCants).

Measuring the IS’ success and losses in terms of tax revenue is, therefore, an important metric to consider. Without taxes, IS militants cannot provide the services necessary to support citizens in the areas under their control. For now, this inability is replaced by extreme violence, which forces obedience through fear. In the long run, however, this will hinder the functionality of the “state” envisioned by the IS.

The way in which we understand the successes and failures of the Islamic State’s state-building activities will help to define how we understand and apply international norms such as the responsibility to protect, in which the sovereign state is the central unit of analysis. It will also help to explain the use of “state” violence, and genocidal activities occurring in the land controlled by the IS.

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