Between 2014-2019, the Islamic State undertook an ambitious governance project in Iraq and Syria that attempted to replicate and mimic the functions, institutions, and structure of contemporary nation-states. At its peak, the Islamic State’s state comprised an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers (an area equivalent to the size of Portugal) and the group governed the lives of eight million civilians residing in its territory. The experiences of civilians living in Islamic State-controlled territory varied widely. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians fled the Islamic State’s territory as soon as they could, many of those civilians who remained engaged in diverse forms of everyday resistance against their Islamic State occupiers, while an unknown number of civilians were the victims of the group’s systematic mass killings, rape, and torture policies.
However, this article focuses on a group of persons who have received little attention but played a key role in the development of the Islamic State: local civilian employees of the group. These Iraqi and Syrian civilians were employed by one of the Islamic State’s federal or provincial governing institutions for a specific role and in return received a salary, as well as frequently other financial and material bonuses. However, the Islamic State’s civilian employees did not necessarily pledge allegiance to the group nor did they necessarily become members. But taken as a whole, civilian employees were fundamental to the operation of the Islamic State’s state; they formed the majority of employees that staffed the vast number of governing institutions that the Islamic State created during the first years of its rule.
It is safe to assume there are many thousands of surviving former civilian employees of the Islamic State. They represent a potentially significant challenge. Many civilian employees presumably remain in their communities and represent a potential workforce for any future iterations of the Islamic State. However, significant numbers have also been detained in Syria and Iraq, with little transitional justice or reintegration processes in place. According to Human Rights Watch, Iraqi civilian employees affiliated with the Islamic State have been “subject to prosecution for their role in aiding or providing support to a terrorist organization.” Courts in northeast Syria run under the auspices of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria have distinguished between civilian and armed membership of the Islamic State. Sentences for civilian employees are one to two years of imprisonment instead of five to 10 years. However, up until 2021, only 8,000 Syrians had been prosecuted in these courts. It is estimated that it would take at least another 13 years to prosecute the Syrians who are in detention in these camps, without even considering the Iraqis or other foreign persons currently detained in northeast Syria.