Susanna Karvinen

Why do some rebel groups establish governance? – The case of ISIS


War zones are often seen as full of chaos and violence. Chaos is, however, seldom the only characteristic of conflicts. War zones also have order, often established by rebel groups. Creation of order through governance activities, however, vary significantly between and even within rebel organisations. Scholars studying rebel groups behaviour have tried to explain this variation and have identified multiple reasons. In light of this literature, this essay will discuss why the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) established governance by analysing a range of the group’s governing activities. ISIS controlled essential services such as electricity, water, fuel and bread provision, forcing the local population to accept its rule, provided public goods to gain popular support and to create fight-ready populations and used pre-existing state structures for its advantage. The group did not, however, provide these governance activities consistently over time and between regions. This essay argues that strategic calculations, armed competition, access to resources and ideology explain the geographical and temporal variation in ISIS’ governance. Ideology had a strong impact on the governing decisions ISIS took but even such a despotic group as ISIS was subject to the conditions of the environment in which it operated.


Alongside violence and chaos, war zones often display order too. Within intra-state conflicts, rebel groups engage in governance activities and thus change the society in which they operate (Arjona, 2016: 2). Governing is, however, costly and when deciding whether to invest resources in governance, rebel groups must assess how it would serve both their immediate objectives and their broader political goals. Strategies are varied, as some set up sophisticated bureaucracies while others limit their intervention to a few informal regulations (Loyle et al., 2019: 6, 9, 12). But what explains the variation in rebels’ strategies? The literature on rebel groups has identified a range of different explanations for this form of governance.  This essay explores some of these explanations in reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). First, the conceptual and operational definitions of rebel groups and rebel governance are introduced for the selected case of ISIS. Then, the essay explores how some of the explanations for rebel governance apply to ISIS. It discusses how strategic and practical motives, pre-existing state structures, wartime environmental factors and ideology impacted the type of governing ISIS provided and how these factors explain the temporal and spatial variation in its governance.

Rebel groups and rebel governance

Rebel groups can be defined as organisations which oppose national governments with both military and political activities (Jo et al., 2016: 76). Conceptually, rebel organisations are therefore “groups whose members are engaged in protracted violence with intentions of gaining undisputed political control over all or a portion of a pre-existing state’s territory” (Péclard and Mechoulan, 2015: 13). Operationally, the rebel group definition in this essay relies on Jo et al. (2016: 76-77), who define rebel groups as “armed organisations that engaged in actual battle against national government forces, generating at least 25 battle deaths in a civil conflict”.

Rebel governance is, as Arjona (2011: 1) defines it, “the organisation of civilian affairs for those living in territories where they are present”. Operationally, Arjona’s (2011: 2-3) definition for rebel governance is based on two characteristics: (1) governance takes place in areas where the armed actor has some territorial control, and (2) includes the establishment of rules and institutions to regulate civilian populations and their relationship with combatants. Rebel governance comprises the provision of security for civilians through establishing policing forces and legal mechanisms, but also includes meeting the educational and health needs of the population, establishing a system of food production and distribution, allocating land and other resources to enable civilians to engage in their livelihoods, and providing shelter to civilian populations (Mampilly, 2011: 4, 17).

The above definition of rebel governance from Arjona (2011: 1-3) and Mampilly (2011: 4, 17) is useful except for one aspect. They both assume territorial control as a condition for rebel governance. Territorial control may result in governance and certainly makes it easier to, for example, provide public goods and more permanent institutions (Loyle et al., 2019: 11). Many contemporary insurgencies also do take over large territories for extensive periods of time and establish extensive governance structures in these areas (Mampilly, 2011: 3). Assuming territorial control as a condition for rebel governance is however a state-centric approach. Functioning states now often organise their governance structures territorially. Historically though, governance has not always been tied to territorial borders, especially before the Westphalian Treaties in 1648 (Loyle et al., 2019: 12), which supposedly marked the beginning of the sovereign state system, (although the impact of Westphalia has been proved to be a myth and a misconception of International Relations discipline) (de Carvalho et al., 2011). Nevertheless, during that era the Catholic Church had ruling power that was not restricted to territoriality. The Church claimed all Catholics as subjects of the Pope who would have to show obedience to its laws and thus its rulemaking authority was based on identity rather than territoriality. This authority extended to national rulers as well. Even after the Church’s power waned, it held some non-territorially based power for social control and provided public goods through its missionaries in colonised countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Loyle et al., 2019: 12). Although rebel groups in current conflicts do not have the same power over national rulers than the Catholic Church used to have, even in the contemporary context gaining control over territory is not a necessary condition for governance. In some cases, the dynamics might actually work inversely, as providing governance may help rebels to gain territorial control if they establish support and legitimacy in advance of their operations against an adversary. Taliban governance has frequently preceded the control of territory, as the threat of rebel retaliation for breaking their social norms or security protocols has been enough to secure civilian collaboration even in areas yet outside of Taliban control (Loyle et al., 2019: 7, 12).

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

This essay will discuss the explanations for rebel governance in reference to the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS is a jihadist group promoting the re-creation of the earliest Islamic society through a literal interpretation of the Qurʾan and other texts that have transcribed the practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Revkin, 2020: 761). Initially, ISIS was one faction among hundreds of other armed groups in Syria, but in 2013 it began to develop into a well-organised, dominant armed force in control of largely populated areas in Syria and Iraq (UNHRC, 2014: 2). In March 2019, ISIS was driven out of the last pocket of land it held in the Syrian desert town of Baghuz, but attacks by sleeper cells have continued after that and its ideology remains alive (Chulov, 2019).

ISIS is both a terrorist group and a rebel group. The UN Security Council defines it as a terrorist group (UNHRC, 2014: 2), but due to the organisation’s objective of controlling territory and governing civilians for the purposes of establishing a Caliphate, it also fits with the definition of rebel governance (Revkin, 2020: 761). ISIS is an interesting case to study because its characteristics are fairly unique as it employs a different model of organisation from that which is common among rebel and terrorist groups. Firstly, ISIS uses extensive military power and extreme violence (e.g. beheadings) to erase opposition. Secondly, even though it is a terrorist group, it provides much of the same governance activities than a state would, a practice which is not often observed in terrorist groups (Jo et al., 2016: 81). Discussing ISIS as a case study therefore allows for testing if factors identified by the literature as generally shaping rebel governance also shape the governance of more unique cases like ISIS. The group provides a good case study because it also exhibits temporal and geographical variation in its governance. Raqqa, the central city of ISIS’ territorial network, was the most fully developed example of the group’s vision of a Caliphate. Some towns in the Aleppo province also experienced heavy governance as did some selected towns in other provinces. ISIS did not, however, provide comprehensive governance in all areas under its rule in Syria (Caris and Reynolds, 2014: 4). Its governance also changed over time in areas under its rule. For example, when facing armed competition, it directed its focus from providing public goods to extracting resources for fighting (Martinez and Brent, 2017: 141).

Strategic motives

One stream of explanations for rebel governance can be traced to the group’s strategic motives. The group might choose to form civilian governance only when it believes this will help to win (Péclard and Mechoulan, 2015: 20-21). Rebels have strategic incentives to establish a social contract with local populations because winning requires pressuring the incumbent and increasing strength through gaining and maintaining territorial control. Order is instrumental for territorial control and hardly possible without establishing clear rules that regulate both civilian and combatant behaviour (Arjona, 2016: 9-10).

While in many cases order through governance is instrumental for territorial control, as mentioned earlier, having control over a territory is not a necessary condition for rebel governance. There has been a strong suspicion that in some cases ISIS has still maintained a potent, though weakened, governing presence even when it has receded in territorial control (Loyle et al., 2019: 7). Additionally, alongside military strategies, governance can work as a tool for gaining control, not just maintaining it. For ISIS, providing governance was one of the main mechanisms to gain total territorial control. While ISIS’ rise has often been associated with its string of military victories and clever social media tactics, its efforts to provide bread, security, and other basic services were crucial to its initial expansion in Syria. When taking control of each new town, ISIS started from gaining control of key industries and services like electricity, water, fuel, and bread. This way, it asserted total control over the core needs of the local population. Many civilians in the Aleppo province, for example, at least initially accepted the imposition of ISIS’ despotic measures because of how quickly and effectively it established a full-fledged governance system resolving disputes and providing services such as sanitation and food delivery, thus making its order to appear as the only alternative to social collapse (Martinez and Brent, 2017: 140).

Linked to the strategy of using governance as a way to gain and maintain control over a territory, rebel groups can also use governance to win over the hearts and minds of local populations. A rebellion cannot be successful without gaining popular support. This traditional explanation for rebel governance portrays them as freedom fighters trying to gain support on the basis of good behaviour and ideological propaganda (Arjona, 2016: 5). Regulating civilian life, guaranteeing public order and providing public goods are seen as means by which to achieve this support (Martinez and Brent, 2017: 140-141). On the other hand, traditional explanations have viewed rebels as looting criminals (Arjona, 2016: 5). At least in the case of ISIS, governance behaviour was more complex than this dichotomous either-or view would suggest. In its initial expansion and gaining of territorial control, ISIS used governance as a way to gain popular support. As part of its state-building project in Aleppo and Raqqa, it published a pamphlet in 2014 outlining the services it offers, including almost all needs one might expect a formal local government to provide for: distribution of water, collection of taxes, and electricity installation. It also outlined plans to plant and harvest wheat in coming years, and emphasised that it would ensure bread for everyone by managing bakeries and mills. In some areas, ISIS indeed significantly reduced the price of bread and made it mandatory for bakers to offer charitable contributions to the poor. ISIS used control of essential services and popular support when acquiring new towns in Syria at initial stages, and this strategy to win over hearts and minds through governance proved successful in many war-ravaged and food-insecure Syrian towns and villages (Martinez and Brent, 2017: 140-141). However, after gaining territorial control, its interaction with the local civilian population did not remain consistent and sometimes displayed more criminal characteristics than good behaviour, as will be demonstrated later. Based on the examples above, the group’s strategy to provide essential services as a way to win over hearts and minds seems to have existed mostly in situations where ISIS could take calculated advantage of the destitution of local people. Civilians under ISIS territories were not simply either ideologically supportive of ISIS or victimised by the group, but rather the interactions exhibited combinations of both instances. Furthermore, civilians might have welcomed ISIS and shown ideological support out of mere need to survive.

Practical motives

The motivations for establishing governance may also be simply practical. Rebel groups, for example, need to keep soldiers healthy so that they can fight. Rebels might also use education to indoctrinate the population to believe in and fight for the cause (Loyle et al., 2019: 13). ISIS did establish a health care system in the areas it controlled through seeking licensed doctors and health care professionals in its service. It had high motivations to create a strong health care system because of the need to treat injured fighters. ISIS also engaged in providing education of sorts but this was much lower priority than health care and did not aim to actually educate the population but rather to indoctrinate them. In Syria, education has been said to be mostly for purposes of indoctrinating and recruiting children. ISIS’ textbooks included exercises to desensitize children to violence, such as arithmetic problems to count the number of ISIS soldiers and nonbelievers on a battlefield. ISIS also engaged its underage fighters, most well under ten years old, with violent training exercises and prisoner executions. A formal education system was non-existent in places like Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS Caliphate at the time of its rule (Qaddour, 2017). Evidence of similar activities of radicalisation within formal education for the purposes of spreading ideology and training fighters are present in the ISIS-held areas in Iraq as well (Iraqi Institution for Development, 2015). Lack of a proper formal education system points to ISIS’ failure to provide all aspects of governance like its goal to establish a state-like Caliphate would require, and thus raises evidence that some of its governance activities were purely for the practical purposes of the warfighting efforts.

Pre-existing structures

Pre-existing civilian institutions in territories under rebel control can also affect the control itself, as those structures in place within a polity are likely to provide a good basis for promoting governance activities. In other words, deep state presence can enable rebels to rely on existing institutions (Arjona, 2011: 4). ISIS certainly took advantage of pre-existing structures in society. In pre-conflict Syria, the Ba’ath Party had long understood direct control over the bread market as an integral task of the social welfare contract it had with the population. ISIS recognised the importance of bread to the Syrian population and thus undertook numerous efforts to control and ensure its production in Raqqa and Aleppo (Kasfir et al., 2016). It is also easier for rebel groups to establish governance in areas where local populations are unsatisfied with the existing structure provided by formal authorities (Arjona, 2011: 4). As mentioned earlier, many of the Syrian towns and villages were war-torn and food-insecure, making ISIS’ bread provision a successful way to gain popular support (Martinez and Brent, 2017: 140-141).

Strong pre-existing institutions can also affect civilians’ capabilities to resist rebel rule, which in turn may result in rebel groups losing support or legitimacy for their governance. Full resistance is likely to occur only when civilians have both strong desires to reject rebel rule and a high capacity to engage in collective action (Arjona, 2015). Although, even under the most autocratic governance system, civilians have found ways to influence and even challenge armed groups (Kasfir et al., 2016). ISIS is perceived as denying civilians’ agency completely, but its inability or unwillingness to continue performing governance activities loosened its hold over several Syrian communities. In Raqqa, ISIS’ failure to provide basic public goods fostered resistance among the population that was increasingly unwilling to tolerate its erratic rule. Popular discontent helped the formation of several militia brigades that conducted attacks and assassination attempts against ISIS members (Martinez and Brent, 2017:141). Equally in Mosul, residents who originally regarded ISIS as liberators, became more dissatisfied as their taxes greatly increased and their non-payment was met with physical punishments and fines (Kasfir et al., 2016). Civilian resistance thus affected the degree of governance which ISIS was able to maintain. This variation in the degree or quality of governance ISIS provided, as well as the diversity of civilian reactions to it demonstrate that even groups with the most despotic and oppressive rule are affected by pre-existing structures and social relations. Prior governance configuration, hence,  can work both to the benefit or disadvantage of the rebel group, as is clear in the example of how ISIS utilised the bread market for maintaining control, but also in how civilians were able to organise resistance to the group’s rule.

Wartime environmental factors

The environment rebels operate in also impacts their decisions towards governance. One environmental factor is resources. Greed theories argue that resource-rich rebels are more likely to attract opportunistic groups whose members are prone to looting, indiscipline, and abuse of civilians (Péclard and Mechoulan, 2015: 14) rather than to investing in building bureaucracies necessary for long-term governance (Revkin, 2020: 757). Greed theories also predict that armed groups will only engage in state-building activities such as taxation in territories where they don’t have access to natural resources such as oil (Revkin, 2020: 757).

ISIS’ governance activities seem to contradict greed-based theories. Some of ISIS’ income stream has come from criminal activities such as kidnapping and bank robberies, but it has also had access to a wealth of oil. In September 2014, its daily income from oil was three million American dollars (Kasfir et al., 2016). And yet even in oil-rich areas, ISIS engaged in taxation. In his study, Revkin (2020: 757) found that ISIS’ taxation policies were just as prevalent in resource-rich districts as they were in resource-poor areas of Syria . As a strongly ideological group, ISIS’ arrangement of the tax system did not seem to be driven by a lack of resources but by its beliefs. Many of ISIS’ revenue-extracting practices were drawn directly from the Qu’ran and other religious texts in which the group’s belief system is based on. For example, it collected a mandatory charitable contribution called zakāt, the third of the five Pillars of Islam. Some tax policies were not explicitly justified by religious texts but still reflected ISIS’ interpretation of Islam. In Syria’s largest oil field region, al-Mayadin, ISIS imposed fines based on the group’s interpetation of Islam for example on civilians who failed to comply with the strict dress code or to close shops during mandatory praying times. It also collected fees for financing the construction of new mosques (Revkin, 2020: 761).

Rebel governance can also be affected by competition with other armed groups or strong state repression. Arjona (2016: 3, 9) argues that although a majority of rebel groups mostly operate under long term goals with a – sometimes tacit – social contract with the local population and subsequent creation of order, their preferences might shift to present outcomes when facing either internal indiscipline or external competition with other warring sides. The social contract with locals becomes a costly burden as it does not help to achieve the rebels’ short-term goals of fighting and may even hamper their success. Theories of rebel and criminal violence also argue that armed competition pushes armed groups to use more violence and neglect governance (Arjona, 2016: 10.) This shift in preferences and subsequent failure to provide public services is evident for ISIS in Syria. In Aleppo and Raqqa, ISIS eventually prioritised its military capacity and resources at the expense of its previously robust distributive apparatus. It raised the price of bread unjustifiably high due to a US-led campaign to undermine its stream of revenues, and more broadly shifted its focus from providing to the poor to extracting both oil resources and wheat for the purposes of funding its military operations (Martinez and Brent, 2017: 141). Coalition airstrikes also caused paranoia and readiness to random kidnapping within the ISIS leaders in Raqqa (Kasfir et al., 2016), decreasing order and fostering insecurity for civilians. Even though ISIS modified its focus to extracting resources, the change did not stem from looting motives like greed theories would suggest, but from fighting efforts to preserve the Caliphate, which suggests ideological motives.



ISIS bases not only its fundamental character but also its plan for governance almost entirely on ideology and its extremist interpretation of Islamic doctrine (Kasfir et al, 2016). It has even been commented that ISIS is not about fighters or territory but about ideology (Chulov, 2019). All of ISIS’ former governance activities from taxation, schooling and health care to security imply the importance of ideology.  This is evident also in ISIS’ legal system. Establishing a legal code often demonstrates the influence of ideology on rebel governance (Kasfir et al, 2016). The theory of the Caliphate implies a law-based social contract between the caliph and the people. ISIS’ legal system is based on a literal reading of early Islamic materials, and on a long-standing Islamic theory of statecraft and legal authority. Its juridical system has been identified to have covered for example laws governing land, trade, taxation, and the treatment of prisoners and slaves. There is also evidence that ISIS officials engaged in dispute resolution among civilians, even punishing its fighters when they took bribes or harmed civilians (March and Revkin, 2015). Ideology is also evident in the way schools were only seen as a way to indoctrinate a new generation of fighters rather than to educate the population, or in how ISIS displayed high distrust in teachers and forced them to attend a two-month Sharia course before resuming teaching (Qaddour, 2017). Ideologically-driven rebel groups also tend to persist to drive their policies, practises, and institutions from ideology even when they are costly or irrational (Revkin, 2020: 758), which was the case of ISIS’ taxation activities in the resource-rich Al-Mayadin oil fields, where taxation was based on the Qu’ranic notion of charity and ISIS’ interpretation of Islam.


The variation in the type of governance rebels engage in is wide between and within groups. Literature attempting to explain this variation as well as reasons for non-governance has identified multiple factors with varying degrees of plausibility. Nevertheless, one thing is sure: rebels do not operate in a social or political vacuum (Péclard and Mechoulan, 2015: 22) and their ability and/or willingness to establish governance in the territories they control depends on multiple and often simultaneous factors. For ISIS, some of these factors shaping its governance were access to resources, pre-existing state structures, civilian reactions, and ideology. While some of its governance activities, such as schooling, the legal system, taxation, and the training of child soldiers to preserve the Caliphate indicate a strong link to the group’s ideology, evidence shows that it also engaged in governance for strategic and financial reasons. It utilised essential services as a way to gain territorial control, recognised the importance of popular support, and used it strategically in contexts where people were desperate and perhaps more likely to support the group in exchange for services. It also used health care and indoctrination through schools as resources for fighting, and when facing military threats and financial pressures, shifted its focus from governance to financing war efforts. While ISIS’ goal to establish a Caliphate implies strong ideological motives for governance, the group also displayed geographical and temporal variation in its governing which shows that like any rebel group, ISIS neither was immune to the environment in which it operated. Changes in governance due to external factors implies strategic considerations alongside ideology, but also demonstrates how even groups with the most despotic rule are not immune to the factors in their surroundings such as pre-existing state structures and civilian resistance.


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