Declassified Documents Provide Insight into Origins of the Islamic State and How to Defeat the Group

For Release

May 19, 2016

Drawing from more than 140 recently declassified documents from the predecessors of the Islamic State, a new RAND Corporation study shows that the group has been operating for years with remarkable continuity in its philosophy, methods and goals, including the long-standing aspiration for creating a caliphate.

The documents show that the leadership consciously designed the organization not just to fight, but also to build a state governed by the laws dictated by its strict Islamist ideology.

“The lessons from examining the group's history are useful for setting expectations about the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Islamic State and its ability to combat its opponents,” said Patrick Johnston, the lead author of the report and a political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Understanding the origins of the Islamic State can help lead to a coordinated and effective campaign against it. It also can explain how the Islamic State may be able to survive such an effort and sustain itself in the future, albeit perhaps at a lower level of threat.”

Researchers conclude that the record of the military efforts by the United States and Iraq against the Islamic State's predecessors shows that defeating the group will require a persistent military campaign, coupled with a political solution to the longstanding political crises in Iraqi and Syrian.

Although it seemed to burst on to the global scene with its June 2014 conquest of the Iraqi city of Mosul, records show that as early as 2008 the Islamic State of Iraq — a predecessor of the Islamic State — organized itself for statehood.

The Islamic State of Iraq used a bureaucratic management model based on that of the core operating principles of al-Qa'ida, but replicated the model at different geographic levels. It also carefully demarcated the administrative boundaries of its planned state.

The group paid its personnel low wages that would draw true believers rather than opportunists, trained and allocated its membership with an eye toward group effectiveness, raised revenues locally through diversified sources and was able to maintain itself, albeit at much reduced strength, in the face of an aggressive counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategy put in place by its opponents.

“Its own records show that the group was rational in its administration, adaptive in its actions, careful about spending and diversified in revenue raising,” said Howard J. Shatz, a co-author of the report and a senior economist at RAND. “This made it — and continues to make it — a formidable enemy.”

The RAND report recommends that any counter-personnel strategy should strive to eliminate layers of high-level and mid-level managers from the Islamic State. Capitalizing on any fissures within the group can speed its decline, as can degrading its revenues and therefore its ability to make payments.

When the predecessor group Islamic State of Iraq was under great pressure, it missed or delayed salary payments, and the Islamic State's recently reported salary cuts are in line with its standard operations. Under such circumstances, appeals to ideology, battlefield victory and intimidation may not be enough to maintain morale, according to researchers. The most difficult counter-finance challenge is that group has long focused on local fundraising, which means territory must be retaken.

In addition, researchers say that tracking and targeting the Islamic State's foreign recruits will be essential to reducing the group's ability to threaten the broader Middle East, Europe and the United States.

“Targeting the Islamic State's training camps and its flow of skilled terrorists returning to their home counties could be a new approach to reducing the group's ability to strike abroad, especially if it is combined with the current campaign to eliminate their revenue sources and bulk cash holdings,” said Benjamin Bahney, a co-author of the report and a RAND policy analyst.

The report was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

This report is a joint effort among RAND, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton University, and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The report, “Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005–2010,” can be found at

The research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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