Islamic State has triggered many waves of controversy in the West over the past few years. Their origins and growth have sparked outrage and concern but few have come to question the very banner that this terrorist group fights under. In fact, it’s taken for granted that Islamic State is not an actual state despite their name. Most media stories categorise the group as a terrorist group in the middle east. But reducing them simply to a terrorist organisation fails to convey what they actually do. They call themselves ‘Islamic State’ because they see themselves as a state.
What makes a state? Despite most people having a clear notion of what a state looks like – a government, a country – pinning down the details of how to define a state is actually quite tricky. Max Weber has one of the most famous and widely used definitions of the state: a body which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force in a given territory.
Despite the ongoing debate over how we should define a state, within this definition there are several characteristics that all agree on. These essential components of a state are: that it must be within a clearly defined territory, the government or body in charge must have some legitimacy, and there are certain actions that should be carried out, such as taxation and the provision of some services.
Taking these in order, we can say, first of all, that IS does operate within a given territory. It controls large areas of Iraq and Syria. The borders of this territory may not be clearly defined due to ongoing fighting and areas that keep swinging between IS rule and rebel rule, yet the fact remains that they do have a set geographical area that they operate from. Experts also believe that the main aim of IS currently is to consolidate and protect their borders, rather than to keep expanding or to wage war on other countries. Comparing IS to another terrorist organisation such as the IRA clearly shows these differences: IS have areas that they rule, they are more than simply a rebel organisation operating under another government. Islamic State differs in nature from terrorist groups that the West has traditionally faced as they have territorial control and thus are not forced to use covert methods of force.
The second essential component of a state is legitimacy, and this is where IS seems to fall down. They do not have the legitimacy of a democratically elected government, they take over areas by force, and many people living under their rule speak of oppression and subjugation. Yet legitimacy does not just come from being chosen to be the rulers. By accepting and recognising that IS are the rulers, it could be argued that the people under their rule are tacitly consenting to their leadership, and so they have some level of legitimacy. These populations may be referred to as “quasi hostages” but research suggests that, with unpopular alternatives, there is some support amongst the Sunni majorities of these populations for Islamic State governance. It is definitely unclear whether or not IS meets this criteria of being a state, but it seems to me that arguments could be made in favour of IS having some level of legitimacy.
The final key component of a state is that it provides some level of services to its citizens. IS taxes its citizens, which is a characteristic of most states, and suggests that it has some kind of organised infrastructure which enables it to collect taxes. IS also provides public goods such as power and water services, health care, and employment to its citizens. I would argue that IS does provide some level of protection to its citizens as well, but perhaps the motives of this protection are to consolidate and secure its borders rather than for the benefit of the people. It is clear, then, that IS provides many, if not all, of the required services to the people living under its rule. However, its means of providing these services relies mainly on taxation and the control of valuable natural resources which it can extort for money. Its hold on these resources remains weak, so the provision of services is not as stable and secure as we would expect from a fully functioning state.
It's highly unlikely that maps will ever be redrawn with recognition of IS’s statehood. This article doesn’t try to argue that we should change our approach to Islamic State entirely and grant it this recognition. However, these state-like characteristics that the Islamic State mirrors do have implications for the way we treat this group. Islamic State is much more than simply a terrorist organisation, and we should therefore start to treat it as such. Changing how we classify IS may mean that we would try to combat it in a different way and utilise different methods of fighting. The debate surrounding IS statehood does already exist, and some commentators go so far as to say that treating them as a state and fighting them as we would a state rather than a terrorist group is the only way to defeat them. Governments need to start realising this and adapt their methods of dealing with and fighting against IS if they are to have any chance of winning.