The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has an image problem. To much of the world ISIL, also called ISIS, is a ruthless terrorist organization committed to overthrowing Iraq’s government to establish a Sunni Islamist state. It seeks to impose a radical brand of Shariah law—no smoking, no drinking, no unveiled women in public—enforced by floggings and beheadings.
The group’s fighters are engaged in what RAND analyst Patrick Johnston describes as a “blitzkrieg” push toward Baghdad. Yet in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, captured by ISIL in mid-June, leaders are also moving to put in place the rudiments of a functioning government bureaucracy. “What they’re doing now is laying the groundwork that would be required for them to establish control and power over the areas they’ve conquered,” Johnston says.
The insurgents have had some success winning over Mosul’s wary—and weary—public. Residents interviewed recently at a checkpoint on the city’s outskirts praised ISIL for removing the blast walls that had made traffic unbearable and putting an end to petty crime. “There’s no electricity,” said one man, Qusai, “but there’s no shooting. It’s so safe you can sleep on the street.”
It’s a proven model for militant groups, including Hezbollah and the Taliban, and criminal organizations such as the Mexican cartels: Present a credible alternative to an unpopular or failing government and use the honeymoon period to consolidate control. Yet it’s not clear that ISIL can export the tentative support it has received in Sunni-majority Mosul to the rest of Iraq, a nation where few would choose to live by the group’s strict Islamic code. “ISIL wants to stop people from smoking, and that’s when people will turn on them,” says Douglas Ollivant, who was director for Iraq at the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. “If ISIL were being strategic, they’d be kinder and gentler. But from their perspective, what’s the point of setting up a caliphate if it’s not very much of a caliphate?”
Long before it captured Mosul, ISIL set up local racketeering operations there that included extortion, robbery, and kidnapping for ransom, the proceeds of which have been used to underwrite the insurgency against the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Racketeering may have earned the group “as much as $1-$2 million per month,” Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said in an e-mail. Other estimates put the monthly take at $8 million. On June 10 the militants robbed Mosul’s central bank, netting millions more. “A lot of normal people in Mosul like to give to ISIL,” says Atheel al-Nujaifi, the city’s former governor, now exiled to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. “But the people are also afraid of them. Most of the contractors and businessmen are giving them [protection] money.”
Saddam Hazim, a barber, says he fled Mosul after a group of armed ISIL men threatened to kill him. He took shelter in a neighbor’s house and then skipped town, making his way to a refugee camp outside the city. Hazim says he later learned that the militants had torched his car and his shop. The jihadists accused him of being a regime sympathizer. “They knew I gave Iraqi soldiers free haircuts,” he says.
Others insist that life under Mosul’s previous masters was no better. Security forces aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government “harassed people, arrested people,” says a Mosul car dealer who identified himself only by his first name, Louis. “They made us pay protection money and wait for hours at checkpoints. And when they stopped us at checkpoints, they weren’t looking for bombs, but for money.” As far as he’s concerned, “ISIL freed us from Maliki.”
Running a city of almost 2 million may yet prove beyond the group’s abilities. Residents have begun complaining about electricity and water shortages. Fuel supplies are running low. Several Mosul residents say ISIL has imposed a 6-gallon limit on gas purchases. On the black market, al-Nujaifi says, it’s selling at more than double the price charged in Erbil. “You raid a bank of half a billion dollars and you’re supporting 3,000 fighters, that’s a lot of money,” Ollivant says. “But if you’re supporting half of Mosul, it doesn’t get you through three weeks.”