Orwell in Iraq

ISIS’s Futile Quest to Go Legit

With its latest propaganda videos and recruitment for a medical school, the group’s attempts to portray a functioning caliphate seem increasingly desperate.

01.05.15 5:35 PM ET

Ever since Islamic militants grabbed a swath of land across Syria and Iraq this summer, they have been presenting their caliphate as a valid, functioning state. This weekend, the Orwellian depiction of legitimacy became ever more surreal and desperate with the announcement of a new medical school in one city they control and the release of a propaganda video featuring a British hostage touring another town, claiming “this is a normal city going about its business.”

In the Syrian city of Raqqa—the main stronghold of the self-styled Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS or ISIL—posters appeared over the weekend, according to local activists, which announced the opening of a school of medicine and invited applications from high-school graduates between the ages of 18 and 30.

The medical school follows recent claims of plans to mint ISIS currency and the opening of a bank in the Iraqi city of Mosul—another was opened in the Syrian town of al-Bab several weeks ago. But locals there say any money deposited is thrown into an unlocked cupboard behind the tellers, hardly inspiring confidence.

Coinciding with the medical school announcement, the eighth propaganda video featuring British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has been held for more than two years by the militants, was released at the weekend, this time having him tour Mosul in the role of a TV correspondent. Using the city that was captured by ISIS in June as a backdrop, Cantlie disputes Western media reports that it is “in a state of near collapse” with a lack of food, water and working public institutions.

“The media likes to paint a picture of life in the Islamic State as depressed, people walking around as subjugated citizens in chains, beaten down by strict, totalitarian rule,” Cantlie says. But this picture of a “city living in fear as Western media would have you believe” is inaccurate, the captive photojournalist claims in the chilling video that has him looking less gaunt than in the previous seven propaganda videos in which he appears in as a narrator. Touring a souk and a hospital and riding on the back of a police motorcycle with a beaming jihadist, he declares, “Apart from some rather chilly but very sunny December weather, life here in Mosul is business as usual” and enjoyed by “people from every walk of life.”

The doublethink video smacks of something Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel 1984, could be have produced for the Ministry of Truth in accordance with the slogans, “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

Just hours after his claims, ISIS released pictures showing the brutal executions of eight people, four of them Iraqi policemen, in Iraq’s Salaheddin province. The men were accused of reneging on pledges to stop working for the Iraqi government. They are frog-marched blindfolded under a bridge, made to kneel and shot by pistol-armed masked gunmen in yet another highly choreographed execution scene that has been seen often in recent weeks .

In the Cantlie video there’s no mention of commonplace executions or the massacre by Islamic militants of more than 2,000 Shiite prisoners and soldiers shortly after Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was captured. Nor is there mention of the banishment of Christians on pain of death or even of the hundreds of women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority being sold and abused as sex slaves— something boasted in Tweets and videos by Islamic State fighters. Tellingly, the eight-minute video has no interviews with locals testifying to how good life is under the jihadists—all has to be taken on trust from the captive narrator.

“Of all the Cantlie videos, this one is definitely the strangest,” tweeted Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the Institute Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. “The healthier appearance and civilian clothing are very peculiar.”

The propaganda effort to portray the caliphate as a legitimate state seems increasingly frantic—an indication of ISIS weakness rather than confidence. Too much is being professed for the advance in the civil and administrative ambitions of the jihadist group. There are limits to the painting of banditry and extortion as the legitimate raising of taxes. And the narrative of state-making is undercut by the propaganda videos that are also posted of captured soldiers having their throats slit and of women accused of adultery being stoned.

For Sunni Muslims who are prepared to accept strict Sharia law and obey their new jihadist overlords, life may be more or less normal—you wear the niqab, you refrain from drinking alcohol or smoking, and you avoid being stoned, whipped or losing your head.

But for ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his disciples, claims of state legitimacy and stability are crucial—they distinguish ISIS from its rival al-Qaeda, which disavowed the ISIS jihadists last winter over issues of strategy and the ambitions to build a caliphate.

“We have had all the requirements of the Islamic state like fundraising, alms-giving, penalties, and prayers,” said Abu Mohammed al Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, when the caliphate was first announced. In short, an early claim the militants knew how to govern, tax and raise revenue, provide social benefits and underpin it all with a religious, state-building narrative—and the brutality, of course, to enforce it.

Al Qaeda has never managed to carve out a large chunk of real estate to call its own—in Afghanistan it was a guest of the Taliban. ISIS plans not to be reduced to guest status.