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The ISIS Files: The Islamic State’s Department of Soldiers

The “ISIS Files” give us a glimpse into the workings of the Islamic State’s military structure. At first glance, despite the steady military pressure on all sides of the brief contiguous caliphate during the time period (2014-2017), the Diwan al-Jund (Soldier’s Department) documents in the collection reveal the mundane nature of a large bureaucracy in action. The anodyne supply requests, notebooks filled with basic military and religious teachings, and the detritus of daily life as a caliphate soldier serves in stark contrast to our understanding of an organization fighting for its very life against a broad and powerful international coalition. Despite the banality of the paperwork that documents a genocidal caliphate, with echoes of Arendt’s famous study of a Nazi bureaucrat involved in managing the Holocaust, they provide a useful window for researchers to consider the values, nature, and organizational culture of the Islamic State.

We present two major findings from our research of the ISIS Files and other archival sources. First, the Islamic State’s establishment of the caliphate set in motion across all of its bureaucratic entities a routinization of its structure into state-like management tools, and the military wing of the group transformed as well. The department’s plan was to secure its newly won territorial sovereignty with a new armed force quite unlike their guerrilla past. This relatively conventional force would serve as the defender of the “Caliphate on the Prophetic methodology,” as they termed it— an interpretation of the Prophet Mohammad’s vision for a political state. Using primary sources and corroborating secondary sources, we present what we think that structure might have looked like in this specific time period. The army would subsequently transition back to a uniform insurgency, albeit one based in Iraq and Syria but with a new archipelagic spread of global affiliates to manage. This double transformation (from irregular to hybrid/conventional and back) was eased by an adhocratic organizational culture that embraced fluidity and constant change.

Our second finding relates to the Islamic State’s ideology, which was a significant influence in the recruitment, structure, and management of the Department of Soldiers. The ideologues who commanded the rank and file fighters went to great lengths to indoctrinate them on religious concepts pertinent to their role and supervised its own idealized practice of the Salafi version of Islam through the presence of religious advisors down to the platoon level. This is an Islamic State innovation, without precedent in either past Islamic armies or even some of the most ideological armies in history.

Read the GWU Program on Extremism report 

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