people, this is what state formation looks like

One of the biggest news stories from last week is that a militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has quickly captured key cities in Iraq. CNN asked if ISIS is the first terrorist group to build an Islamic state?  Well, the answer is no, as long as you define “terrorist” as “armed political group that targets civilians.”

The have been states founded by organizations that, at one time or another, targeted unarmed civilians. For example, Irgun, a militant Zionist group, included people who would become important in Israeli politics. The nation of East Timor was partially founded by an armed revolutionary group, FreTiLin, which morphed into one of the ruling parties. In terms of Islamic states, one could make the argument that the Taliban was a terrorist group that conquered the secular Afghan state and made it Islamic. There are also various Islamic groups in Africa and Southeast Asia that have conquered territory and have acted like states.

Perhaps what is shocking is that ISIS is doing something uncommon – literally ripping territory from two existing states. Normally, armed revolutionary groups or terrorist groups topple existing elites but otherwise leave boundaries unchanged, or maybe lead a secession. But otherwise, armed, civilian targeting groups are fairly normal aspects of state formation. The relative peace of post-WWII Europe is an anomaly in world history.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 16, 2014 at 3:56 am

One Response

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  1. I’m unsure what makes those two groups the best notable examples. I know nothing about East Timur, but Irgun is a poor example as, while it did conduct a bombing campaign aimed at the British (most famously of their headquarters in the King David Hotel) and were known for their targeting of Palestinian civilians (Deir Yassin was Irgun), one of the key moment of Israeli state formation was when the Haganah established a legitimate monopoly on violence during the Altalena Affair. After Haganah was clearly willing to fire upon Irgun and Irgun was not willing to fire back, Irgun was absorbed into the command structure of the new State. Thus, while Irgunniks, most famously Begin, were (sadly) able to gain able to gain power later, they did so not through a terrorist organization, but through the legitimate organs of the State of Israel. This is perhaps reminiscent of Karen Barkey’s work on the Ottoman Empire, where non-state actors (bandits) are regularly incorporated into the legitimate organs of the state, than it is like a terrorist group building the state. Interestingly, a Princeton poli-sci PhD recently wrote about how the same process of cooption is on-going in Karzai’s Afghanistan with warlords being given governorships.

    I’ll point out CNN’s original question was specifically about an Islamic state. To what degree have ISIS and other wanna-be caliphate founders actually engaged in state-building, that is, building state institutions? While ISIS has been issuing boring reports for years (as many terrorist groups have), it will take time to see what other state functions they take on, and how quickly. There are precedents for non-state Islamic actors who have taken on or tried to take on state functions before. The Taliban, of course, started this way, before setting up an effective (if not particularly modern) state. Before its military defeat, the Islamic Courts Union controlled most of Somalia that had not declared independence (Puntland, etc) and similarly took on a variety of state functions, most notable judicial functions. The rule of Ansar Dine in Mali was thankfully short (seven months or so) so they did not set up many institutions, but they clearly had territory and state ambition as well. The case of Aceh is interesting and complex, but I don’t know nearly enough about it.

    As a good Tillyan, the thing that I’m most interested in seeing is how ISIS is able extract resources. The area around Mosul is home to much of Iraq’s (quickly diminishing) Christian community and ISIS has already loudly stated its intention on taxing them the traditional jizya tax. To my knowledge, none of these aspirants to a renewed caliphate have been able to collect this systematically (though many groups have conducted kidnapping and extortion and claimed it was jizya). The early Tilly is of course all “states make war and war makes states”, but some of Tilly’s best parts on state-making are when he’s not talking specifically about war. This chart shows the different ways states are able to extract resources, and the capacity to require each. Most groups have never gotten beyond tribute and occasionally regular extortionary rents. The Taliban, I believe, for many years after their defeat, continued to collect opium rents, for example. What I’ll be looking at with ISIS is if they are able to control flows, particularly if they are able to sell off any oil now that they control places like Baiji. Additionally, Iraqis certainly expect more services than most of the other examples of Islamist attempted state making. Another big test will simply be if ISIS is able to keep the lights on, in addition to maintaining modern hospitals and consistent judicial rulings.



    June 16, 2014 at 3:22 pm

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