The war against ISIS in Iraq will require more than military victory. Without reducing the corruption that plagues the country’s government, terrorism will be impossible to defeat.
“Don’t you see the allies of the tyrants? Don’t you see those who spread corruption on the Earth? Don’t you see the fighter jets above them protecting them? Are you fighting so that these people can rule the blessed land”? Or so says Dabiq magazine, the glossy propaganda magazine of the so-called Islamic State.
Since the age of Robin Hood, highlighting corruption has been a highly successful recruiting tactic for those seeking to upend the establishment. As the Dabiq excerpt illustrates, ISIS uses corruption to propel imagery of a Manichean world order: on the one hand, corrupt and illegitimate governments; on the other, a utopian Islamic state, free from vice, embodying moral virtue, religious legitimacy, and purity. The construct may be simplistic, but it is also effective. It taps into legitimate grievances and deep public anger at rampant nepotism, bribery, and theft of public funds across Iraq and Syria. They offer not simply a reward in heaven, but a world in which governance and justice systems work. One of their tweets boasts about the “extreme oversight” by their Office of Services that has led to cleaner streets.
“Fight corruption” is a familiar rallying cry in many fragile states. In Libya, former fighters interviewed for a recent report by Transparency International said it was a common theme at ISIS training camps. In daily briefings, ISIS commanders would demonize the corrupt systems of governance that oppressed Muslim societies, from Gaddafi to the Egyptian Armed Forces. In Libya, where an ineffective transitional government hasn’t been able to provide security to the public nor dismantle patronage networks, the narrative is difficult to counter. For many disillusioned with the lack of progress after Qaddafi, ISIS messages about the need for justice or eradicating corruption ring true.
But while “fight corruption” has been an effective call to arms, ISIS’ own corruption is part of the group’s plan to expand its control. In several countries, the group exploited weak and fragile institutions, using corruption to facilitate their operations at an alarming speed. In Libya and in Iraq, extremist groups have relied on smuggling, criminality (including human trafficking), and corrupt officials, even as they seek to portray themselves as an alternative to the abusive systems in power. Interviewees in Libya, for example, said they were paid with smuggled drugs, while bribery at the Egyptian-Libyan border has enabled illicit arms flows.
At the same time, corruption has eviscerated the very institutions that should be stopping the progress of such groups, stripping them of legitimacy and fighting capacity as well. In the months leading up to the fall of Mosul, many Iraqi senior officers, appointed due to their factional and sectarian loyalty rather than professional record, were more focused on amassing personal fortunes, embezzling public resources, and extorting money from those under their command, than on maintaining an effective fighting force and assessing intelligence accurately.
Along with factionalism, this widespread corruption resulted in a fractured and ineffective chain of command, false impressions of the force’s actual strength, exceedingly low morale, and dismal relations with the civilian population. By the time the forces of ISIS marched on Mosul, Iraq’s army was riddled with ghost soldiers - troops who exist only on paper, allowing commanders to pocket their pay. One of the 2,500-troop brigades turned out to only have 500 men, many of them underfed and with salaries skimmed off by their commanders.
Corruption is undermining efforts by the Iraqi government and the international community to respond to the threat posed by radical groups. Yet the problems is rarely recognized as the root cause of extremism, and the perception that international powers are complicit with corrupt regimes has been one of the factors putting the West in the crosshairs of ISIS.
Instead of treating corrupt autocrats as necessary partners in a military fight, Western governments should recognize the inherent dangers they can pose for U.S. operations. Practically speaking, this might mean supporting better oversight institutions, instead of just focusing on the provision of equipment and training to defense and security forces, or putting conditions on military aid to encourage states towards basic defense governance reforms, such as budget transparency and audits.
Defeating violent extremism does not rest solely on the ability of the Iraqi army to retake Mosul neighborhoods, but whether governments throughout the region can regain the trust of their peoples and repair their fragile institutions.