ISIS’s state-building mission is one of the primary points of departure from its jihadist predecessors.
There are no shortage of Islamist militant groups that have held on to land and reconstituted themselves as a government: the Taliban regime ruled over Afghanistan before the US invasion; Hamas has held the Gaza Strip since 2007.
But ISIS’s primary enterprise is the Islamic State itself: a discrete political unit aimed at overthrowing existing governments and ushering in a religiously pure utopia.
This puts humanitarian aid groups in a serious bind. Every state must provide some degree of services for its citizens, or at least pretend to. And however warped and bigoted ISIS’s concept of “citizenship” may be the group understands that its legitimacy and ideological appeal is connected to its ability to at least behave like a state.
So there is a jarring convergence of interests for ISIS and humanitarian groups. They both want to help people in need — but for morally divergent reasons, to put it mildly.
At Vox, Max Fisher notes that ISIS has allowed aid groups to carry out polio vaccinations in territory it controls. Fisher explains ISIS’s “pro-vaccine stance” and says that despite the group’s violence excesses, “even ISIS sees the value of immunizing children against contagious diseases.”
But it’s likelier that ISIS sees strategic value in exercising any kind of state-like power. And as an eye-opening December, 2014 report from the Humanitarian Policy Group and the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) demonstrates, ISIS has decided that aid advances its state-building project and deepens the group’s control over the estimated 3.6 million people living under the “Caliphate.”
As the report explains, ISIS imposes strict conditions on aid groups that operate in its territory with the aim of co-opting their services.
“IS representatives are directly involved in — or claiming credit for — aid distributions,” the report states. The report quotes the “head of a local NGO” in Tikrit who says that ISIS won’t distribute aid if it’s labelled with the emblem of the group providing it. “If they saw these labels, they wouldn’t let it in and they give our volunteers trouble and they forbid the distribution of those items to the people,” he says.
This restriction enables ISIS to take credit for the aid it receives. The group has even incorporated aid into its official propoganda: “Using its slick media division Al Hayat, IS shares videos depicting distributions of food and other support services, including medical supplies.” The group holds organised food distributions with some bags in the videos carrying the branding of the “IS Department of Relief.”
Naturally, IRIN couldn’t find any instances of people actually “receiving any support from the ‘IS Department of Relief.'” But they did find evidence that ISIS is “stealing from people in areas it controlled,” and the report quoted one aid worker who claimed that ISIS taxed trucks of humanitarian aid.
Overall, the report concludes that ISIS is “not automatically opposed to working with humanitarian actors — as long as certain terms are agreed, such as no labelling and no international staff members, and assistance serves the group’s wider aims.”
The jihadist group is “capitalising on its role as a conduit for aid distributions to project the image of a group that is not only engaged in an armed struggle but also providing for people living under its control.”
War presents a range of moral dilemmas for humanitarians: In the absence of formal state control, it’s the actors who create the gravest organised threat to people’s safety that exert the most influence over how and where aid is distributed.
So there are numerous examples of aid becoming an active and perhaps negative factor in how conflicts unfold. As Robert Kaplan recounts in his book Surrender or Starve, the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam used the international response to the 1980s famine in Ethiopia to distract from his almost unimaginably brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Tigray and Eritrea.
The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch has argued that humanitarian neutrality in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide turned refugee camps in the country into safe-havens for the genocide’s perpetrators. And in Gaza, the UN provides $US238 million in annual humanitarian funding, underwriting vital public services like garbage collection and education in a territory controlled by Hamas, a US-listed terrorist organisation.
The report’s authors close by expounding on the importance of opening lines of dialogue with ISIS in order to facilitate effective and non-morally hazardous aid delivery.
But it admits that ISIS has a lot to gain from cooperating with aid groups and concludes that present-day Iraq and Syria present yet another instance where helping people has the potential to make things worse: “Although duty-bound to deliver aid impartially, based on need,” the report states, “there is a very real fear that working with IS will inadvertently benefit the group materially, confer on it undue legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people and prolong the conflict and suffering.”
The report doesn’t intend this to be an argument for simply halting aid deliveries inside of ISIS territory. But the key to delivering aid to areas ISIS controls is understanding that the jihadists don’t allow humanitarian groups to operate because they embrace those groups’ missions. They’re in it to help advance the objectives of the Islamic State, which are the diametric opposite of humanitarianism.
There’s no easy way out of this dilemma. Cutting off aid ensures additional starvation and disease. Continuing aid might empower a group that massacres religious minorities and burns its prisoners alive.
And it’s the perhaps unenviable responsibility of aid groups to figure out how to immunize children and deliver much-needed food and medicine without empowering one of the most brutal terrorist groups on earth.
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