The Failed Islamic States Index

Why jihadis stink at governing.

On June 29, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham rebranded itself as simply the Islamic State and proclaimed that it was the legitimate government of the swath of Iraq and Syria it has seized, beginning with its capture of Fallujah eight months ago and rapidly expanding, most recently to Christian-majority towns in Iraq's northwest. Not to be outdone, the Nusra Front, the Islamic State's al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rival, declared in July that it was establishing its own state, which the group called an Islamic emirate.

Some analysts have likened the Islamic State to a "new Taliban," which attempted to establish hard-line Islamist governance in Afghanistan. But one need not reach back to the 1990s for examples of jihadist states: Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Mali have made similar attempts much more recently.

In 2011 and 2012, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a coalition of North African jihadists exploited crises of governance to establish their own short-lived emirates. Both alienated their populations before collapsing under government counteroffensives. As the Islamic State has gone about consolidating its control -- eliminating Sunni rivals, destroying cultural artifacts, and enforcing extremist interpretations of sharia rule -- the similarities have become even more apparent. But it is also apparent that the Islamic State has learned little from recent history and appears doomed to make the same mistakes as its intellectual brethren in North Africa and Yemen.

In 2010, as AQAP gathered strength in the hills of Yemen, Osama bin Laden cautioned the group not to let their ambitions exceed their abilities. "Jihad as a means to bring down countries and to gain control of them does not require beginning such a plan based on the hope that people will fight to establish a nascent state," he wrote in a letter found at his Abbottabad compound almost a year later. "Instead, it requires close study and inspection and confirmation that the elements necessary to success are in place.... We are not yet ready to cover the people with the umbrella of Islamic rule." Without the resources to provide a better alternative to the government in Sanaa, including government services and infrastructure, bin Laden warned, the same grievances Yemenis had against the government would be directed at AQAP. "We cannot provide for these needs in light of the battle and siege of the whole world against us," he wrote.

It's unclear if the letter reached Yemen, but if it did, AQAP didn't heed bin Laden's advice. In April 2011, with the Yemeni government focused on the popular uprising that in time would unseat the country's president, AQAP and its popular front organization, Ansar al-Sharia, seized the town of Jaar, in Yemen's southern Abyan governorate, which they declared the "emirate of Waqar." On May 27, 2011, just weeks after bin Laden's death, AQAP launched an assault on the neighboring city of Zinjibar. Yemeni soldiers fled from a military base, leaving behind U.S.-purchased weapons and equipment. Soldiers at another base in the city refused to counterattack. Months later, a lieutenant who fled told the Guardian he took off his uniform and left because the crisis had divided the military: "[T]he army leadership is rotten and corrupt. Why would a soldier fight if the army is split in Sana'a?" With the only remaining soldiers in the city besieged, "stringy-haired fighters quickly secured the governor's palace across town, raising al-Qaeda's black flag over the white stone buildings," Gregory Johnsen wrote in his history of AQAP, The Last Refuge. AQAP fighters also seized the nearby city of Azzan. They consolidated their power, naming each of the three cities an emirate, together constituting what they claimed was AQAP's sovereign state.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis escaped the AQAP-held cities and fled to Aden. AQAP tried to institute a "hearts and minds campaign" to win over the remaining residents: taxes were abolished, new electric and sewage infrastructure was erected, free water was distributed. AQAP recruited foot soldiers from the local population and paid them handsome salaries. But to fund their charity work, AQAP raided banks and government offices for funds and ran protection rackets. They instituted sharia law, amputating the hands of thieves and publicly crucifying a man accused of homosexuality. Indoctrination centers were set up and if residents resisted AQAP's brand of Salafism, officials would "lock them somewhere quiet and give them reading material until they realize how wrong they were," an AQAP representative told the Guardian. AQAP consolidated power in their own hands, taking authority away from local tribal leaders who at first seemed to support AQAP's infrastructure and development projects. But as the brutality of AQAP governance became evident, those tribal leaders rallied against the Islamic radicals and established Yemeni government-funded militias called "popular committees" to resist the emirate's growth.

AQAP's hold on the three cities didn't last. As bin Laden had noted in his letter, AQAP had the "battle and siege of the whole world against [it]." U.S. and Saudi airstrikes pounded Zinjibar for months, and in June 2012 the Yemeni military, supported by the popular committees, pushed AQAP out of Jaar and Zinjibar. AQAP has returned to hiding in Yemen's under-governed mountains while the popular committees, still funded by Sanaa, remain an active force in securing what was, for about a year, AQAP's emirate.

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At the same time the Yemeni government was preparing its counteroffensive, jihadists in Mali were trying to establish an emirate of their own. In March 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular separatist group of Tuareg rebels indigenous to northern Mali and invigorated by fighters returning from the Libyan civil war, formed a tenuous alliance with Ansar Dine, a local jihadist group. On March 21, 2012, unable to control the Tuareg insurgency, Mali's military junta ousted the president and suspended the constitution. Amid the chaos of the coup, the Tuareg-jihadist coalition gained control of three major cities -- Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu -- and immediately declared itself the Independent State of Azawad.

The alliance didn't last. Ansar Dine and its al Qaeda allies -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) -- quickly imposed strict sharia law and drove the MNLA out of the coalition. Whereas in Yemen, AQAP had made exceptions in its interpretation of Islamic law, such as allowing locals to continue the national pastime of chewing the narcotic leaf known as qat, the jihadist government in Azawad imposed a strict curfew, required women to wear the hijab, and banned alcohol, smoking, and music. Women were whipped for not covering up, suspected thieves were amputated, and unmarried couples were stoned for adultery.

AQIM's leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, protested this severity in an internal al Qaeda document recovered later by the Associated Press. "One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion," Wadoud wrote to the jihadists governing in Timbuktu. "Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahideen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment."

Wadoud's warnings were ignored. Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJAO alienated locals accustomed to a much more moderate form of Islam. Residents in Timbuktu reported that all chances of gaining their allegiance were lost when jihadists smashed the tombs of their saints with pickaxes and shovels. The jihadists also began exploiting the region for economic gain through drug and human trafficking, arms smuggling, and kidnapping of Western nationals for ransom. About 300,000 Malians fled their homes to avoid human rights abuses, the strict application of sharia law, and the overall lack of security. Even without popular support, the jihadist government retained a tenuous hold on the region until, in January 2013, a joint French and Malian military operation pushed out Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJAO, ending the 10-month-old state.

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These failed experiments in Islamist governance haven't deterred the Islamic State, though. Where the emirates of Waqar and Azawad attempted to impose new governments on Yemeni and Malian citizens, the Islamic State has gone a step farther, declaring itself a caliphate -- the rightful religious, not just political, authority in the regions it governs. The claim "reeks of arrogance," analyst J.M. Berger wrote, "demanding an oath of loyalty from essentially all Muslims, with dissenters being labeled sinners at best, or apostates at worst."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Islamic State would reject bin Laden's warnings about waiting for the opportune moment to establish a state. The organization has always separated itself from al Qaeda's central command. In the same trove of documents recovered from Abbottabad that included bin Laden's warning to AQAP, other internal letters reveal that the al Qaeda leadership worried that their Iraqi affiliate had become a liability. In 2011, after years of bloody civil war in which the Islamic State (then operating under the names al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq) fought against U.S. troops, Shiite militias, and even other Sunni jihadists in Iraq's north and west, al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn privately suggested that the core leadership "severs its organizational ties with the Islamic State of Iraq" and disavow years of the two groups' partnership. Bin Laden demurred, but as the Islamic State expanded its operations into Syria and began clashing with the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's designated affiliate, circumstances changed. In February, bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, expelled the Islamic State from the organization, saying that he was "not pleased" with them.

The Islamic State has always set itself apart, but is it imprudent enough to repeat the same mistakes that its al Qaeda rivals made in Yemen and Mali over the last three years?

Like AQAP in Yemen, the Islamic State has tried to soften its image and win hearts and minds in Iraq and Syria. It promotes its charity work on social media, showing jihadists passing out free food for poor residents celebrating Ramadan, and in its Syrian capital, Raqqa, it has engaged in public works projects like the construction of a new marketplace. But it has also begun consolidating power. And despite the ways in which the Islamic State's assault in Iraq has been framed as a Sunni vs. Shiite conflict, the reality is more complicated. In June, the Islamic State executed 13 moderate Sunni clerics in Mosul, according to McClatchy. It has also begun rounding up high-ranking figures in the Sunni coalition that facilitated its surge through western Iraq last month. "[The Islamic State] called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did," Haidar Abadi, a member of Iraq's parliament, told Reuters. "And now [the Islamic State] is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don't believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute."

The Islamic State seems intent on replicating the failed attempts at state formation in Waqar and Azawad. This has included pillaging Iraq's resources with little regard for the population under its control. The Islamic State is making millions smuggling Iraqi oil to Syria and beyond, but their occupation has prompted fuel and electricity shortages in Anbar, and the cost of scarce goods has inflated. The Islamic State's conservative reading of sharia law has been written into its new city charter for Mosul. In tacit recognition of Wadoud's warning in Mali, there have not yet been any public executions and people can reportedly still buy cigarettes, but it has begun purging the city of religious minorities. Residents of Mosul look warily towards Fallujah, where lashings and beheadings are now legal punishments after six months of jihadist occupation. The Islamic State has also begun destroying the region's cultural heritage -- Shiite mosques and Christian churches, but also the shrines of fellow Sunnis, which the jihadists says are tantamount to idolatry. In July, the Islamic State blew up a shrine to the prophet Jonah shared by all three Abrahamic religions. In one video of the demolition, a witness can be heard saying, "No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels."

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This kind of puritanism is fundamental to Salafi jihadists' idea of governance. It is also exactly what alienated Yemenis and Malians in al Qaeda's attempted emirates. It is a lesson that the Islamic State has not learned and, within their rigid ideological strictures, perhaps cannot. "There are those that cheered the gunmen," a resident of Tikrit told the Washington Post, "but where are they now? They have all fled." The U.N. refugee agency reports that more than a million Iraqis have fled the Islamic State's advances in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, and those left behind are already distressed by the first few weeks of jihadist rule. "People are suffering," a man in Mosul told the Washington Post. "These people are fighters. They are not capable of running a state."

But if the Islamic State hasn't learned the lesson, neither have other jihadists. Last month, a new message from the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra began circulating online, in which he declares the establishment of his own Syrian emirate and the immediate implementation of sharia. The move seems motivated more by Jabhat al-Nusra's rivalry with the Islamic State than an interest in governing. The Nusra Front, the region's al Qaeda affiliate, competes with the Islamic State -- for recruits, supplies, territory, and funds. In announcing the emirate, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra claimed that the organization has lost $1 billion to the Islamic State.

In both Yemen and Mali, it took months to force the jihadists out of power, despite their ineptitude at governing. Large-scale military offensives by the central government, supported by Western intelligence and airstrikes, were necessary to force the jihadists into retreat. These offensives, when they happened, were the result of months of monitoring and planning, and the necessary level of Western support may well prove different in Iraq. As in Yemen, Iraqi tribes are reportedly organizing to stanch the Islamic State's spread. But in both Yemen and Mali, the jihadists' battle to win the hearts and minds of the people and assert themselves as legitimate governments failed long before troops retook the cities. The early indications suggest the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have learned little since 2011 -- and they're fighting a losing battle.


Democracy Lab

Africa's Free Trade Hangover

Why African leaders have growing doubts about the virtues of free trade.

After 30 years in which the virtues of the free market went largely unchallenged, a quiet revolution is making its way across Africa. Many governments are increasingly ready to toss out the orthodoxy and rethink the importance of the role of the state in national development. African leaders are worrying that the free trade model has left their economies overly dependent on raw commodity exports and that growth has often produced very few higher paid manufacturing jobs and has been accompanied by rising inequality.

Now, from Nigeria to South Africa to Uganda, there are strong domestic movements increasingly mobilizing against free trade deals. Leaders and activists are scorning bilateral investment treaties with rich countries, focusing instead on regional integration and formulating more serious industrialization strategies. Top trade ministers and central bank governors are openly pondering the benefits of increased trade protection, public development banks and more expansionary monetary policies -- steps that would have been considered heresies just a decade ago.

This might seem a surprising conclusion given recent news in the region. On July 10, after 11 years of intense negotiations, the 15 nations of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) finally agreed to sign an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU. It will allow the African countries 100 percent access to the European market, except for rice and sugar, while the EU countries will have 75 percent access to their markets over a 20-year period. For many observers, the concluding of this long-awaited deal will simply come as a further sign of "business as usual." But a closer look shows a broader uneasiness building across the continent.

In fact, the EPA faced serious opposition from a number of quarters, leaving the outcome in doubt as late as March, when Nigeria came out against it. Then, several other ECOWAS states followed Nigeria's example in April. The EU had to apply serious pressure in order to get its African partners to sign. Those measures included threats to cut off existing preferential market access for ECOWAS members that are dependent on selling their agricultural commodities to Europe, such as Ghana and Ivory Coast.

Many, including the Africa Progress Panel led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, have long worried that a EU-ECOWAS deal could hinder the region's efforts to industrialize and build its own manufacturing base if African markets are flooded with European goods. Others point out that the deal threatens regional economic integration. These groups are now calling on national parliaments not to ratify the agreement.

There is similar opposition to trade deals with industrialized nations elsewhere in Africa and the developing world. At the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks, African countries have joined with the BRICS and others to oppose further negotiations because they increasingly see the WTO game as rigged: After all countries agree to lower formal tariffs and quotas at the border, the rich countries use a host of other expensive and sophisticated "behind-the-border" tricks called non-tariff barriers (product quality controls, sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, rules of origin, etc.) to, in effect, continue blocking imports from developing countries. Few developing countries have the capacity to do the same to imports from rich countries, so in practice, only one side actually liberalizes.

The free market approach also blocks developing countries from using a host of government measures to build up domestic industries over time, such as trade protection, subsidized commercial credit, tax incentives, and public support for research and development. Developing countries in the U.N. General Assembly and elsewhere are criticizing their loss of "policy space," their legal rights to adopt industrial policies in the future, and blame this loss of space for the failure of African countries to develop successfully. Rich countries used various forms of these during their own periods of industrialization, but such "state intervention" is now deemed contrary to the free market approach. Decades of IMF and World Bank loan conditions and WTO membership requirements increasingly outlaw the use of these industrial policies.

Working together, the coalition of developing countries and the powerful BRICS has managed to block nearly all of the rich countries' consensus agreements at the WTO level. Stymied, rich countries are now resorting to smaller regional and bilateral free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties (BITs) to press developing countries to liberalize their economies and give up even more of their rights to implement industrial policies over the long-term -- in return for being allowed to export more of their primary commodities to wealthy markets today. But many in Africa are tired of only exporting raw materials. As Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, put it: "Industrialization is not a luxury for Africa, but a necessity for its long-term survival."

In recent years, this viewpoint has been expressed at the highest levels of annual trade and finance ministry meetings and on the top of the policy agenda for regional institutions, such as the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and the African Development Bank. The debate has moved away from asking if developing countries should adopt industrial policies toward asking how best to implement them, as demonstrated by Nigeria in February when it launched two major new programs to boost manufacturing and national economic development.

The swelling backlash against the free trade approach has also extended to attitudes toward foreign direct investment (FDI) and BITs. Many developing countries now reject the latter as interfering with their domestic laws and regulations and compelling them to take disputes with foreign investors out of their national courts and into private international tribunals.

Countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela have terminated their previous BITs over such concerns. India-U.S. talks about an agreement have bogged down over the dispute-settlement mechanism. And now Brazil, notable for its refusal to negotiate any BITs, is drafting a model for FDI treaties that may serve as an alternative template for developing countries. Accepting the frameworks put forward by negotiators from rich countries will no longer be the only option.

Most dramatically, South Africa declared last November that it would no longer sign any further BITs based on the conclusions of a 3-year review. (Ironically, it found that, in any case, South Africa receives more FDI from countries with which it does not have BITs than from those with which it does.)

South Africa's BIT review astutely noted a key insight that had long been understood by all of the rich countries: that benefits to host countries from FDI are not automatic, and realizing benefits requires regulations that balance effective protection of investors' rights with other measures that ensure FDI "supports national development, establishes beneficial linkages to the national economy, augments domestic financial resources, fosters enterprise development, and enhances the technology, skill, and knowledge base of the economy." Therefore, there is a growing sense that signing BITs and free trade agreements that seek to remove such regulations may not be the best way to go. Similarly, in June, Uganda announced it would no longer sign double-taxation avoidance agreements until a new framework can be drafted to ensure that such agreements support the country's interests, preventing their abuse through capital flight or tax evasion.

Other direct challenges to free market norms on monetary and financial policy are also being openly discussed. In a radical departure from the standard IMF view, the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Carlos Lopes, recently told a meeting of African central bank governors that monetary policy must be more consistent with the continent's structural transformation agenda. In other words, rather than blindly adopting the IMF's priority of very low inflation, Lopes suggested the central bankers consider more expansionary policies for higher public investment, particularly for supporting their manufacturing sectors -- moves that traditionally have set IMF officials' hair on fire.

The need for effective exchange rate management is also being raised at the highest levels, citing the experiences of China and others who have demonstrated how it can be used to influence competitiveness of goods and services on international markets. And there is also talk of bringing back public development banks to provide the kind of long-term, low-interest commercial credit that big foreign banks will not provide.

Additionally, new research has bolstered the case for Africans to prioritize regional commerce over traditional African-European trade flows, because it shows that Africans buy more manufactured goods from one another than from others. This has important implications for identifying which trading partners can be most helpful in supporting increased manufactured exports. Such data led Stephen Karingi, also of the Economic Commission for Africa, to call for "a rethink of trade and integration priorities" and to urge that policy be led more by an African agenda. Regarding proposed agreements with countries beyond the continent, he said: "We should not hesitate to have our trade agreements, be they with industrialized or emerging economies, be re-designed, re-negotiated, and re-sequenced."

Carlos Lopes, reflecting the new thinking unfolding across Africa, commented: "It's not a matter of choosing between state and market as if these were two opposites. That discussion is over. Everybody agrees now that there is a role for the state and there is a role for the market. There are regulations that are necessary. The U.S., Europe, Japan have done it. The moment they get in crisis, what do they do? They intervene in the banks and so on."

However, trade negotiators from the industrialized world are still preaching the virtues of free trade to anyone who will listen, and arm-twisting those who won't. Some of the highest profile deals currently being pursued include regional free trade agreements such as the United States' proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), encompassing 12 Pacific Rim nations, the European Union's EPAs with dozens of developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, and the 50-country Trade In Services Agreement (TISA).

The claim that these will help developing countries is a common refrain. But more and more, Africans aren't buying it. Many Africans seem to be waking up to a simple idea: that free market policies are not etched in stone. There is an alternative, and African countries should be able to use industrial polices to develop just as the rich countries did.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images