1. Built environment
December 3, 2015

How good is Isis at running cities?

By Barbara Speed

Isis (or Isil, or Daesh, or whatever we’re calling it today) is best known as a radical Islamist terrorist organisation, responsible for massive upheaval throughout Iraq and Syria and, several rungs down the importance ladder, this week’s political fracas in the House of Commons.

Thanks to the growing size of its territories, however, it’s also something resembling, well, a state. It’s increasingly responsible for such unlikely and banal tasks as “collecting the rubbish” and “making sure the electricity doesn’t just stop working”. 

By calling it a “state”, we’re not attempting to legitimise Isis’ claim over an area of land the size of Pennsylvania and containing over 8 million people. But we are interested to see how a group so hell-bent on destruction fares when it comes to just, well, running things, every day, even when the local council keeps falling out over traffic measures and you need to scrape together a police budget from somewhere. 

To that end, we’ve looked at some areas of municipal governance to see how Isis has gone about doing things. Most of the information focuses on Raqqa, the Syrian city used by Isis as its de facto capital, or Mosul, a city in Northern Iraq occupied by Isis since June 2014.

Rubbish collection

British Isis fighter Abu Rahin Aziz tweeted in February that the group have “regular street cleaning services… bin collection, street cleaning”. This has been borne out by other reports from inside Raqqa. In Mosul, you can apparently be fined 25,000 dinars for flytipping. 

While relatively easy to execute, this shows that the group is keen to maintain order in the city, and avoid that age-old symbol of upheaval and revolution: rubbish piling up in the streets. 

News of Isis’s waste disposal methods found its perfect audience in the Daily Mail’s Middle England readership. In a piece on Aziz’s tweets, the paper included a special box out on the state of rubbish collection in Britain which ends by vaguely implying that Aziz may have left to join Isis because Luton failed to collect garden waste all winter. 

Content from our partners
The key role of heat network integration in creating one of London’s most sustainable buildings
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale

We are including it in full because, well, just read it: 

Bin collection: a key tool in the fight against radicalisation. 


In Raqqa, Isis erected billboards showing propaganda soon after arriving which emphasised the importance of jihad and women’s purity. These are designed to spread their ideology among locals and minimise dissent. 

Cracking down on rogue traders

As pointed out in this excellent Atlantic post on Isis’s state, Isis appears to be operating a Customer Protection Authority Office, which shuts down shops selling poor quality products. 


Isis oversees public religious lectures, and offers food aid to people attending religious services, especially during Ramadan, through its “IS Department of relief” humanitarian aid office. Much of this aid actually comes from organisations overseas, but according to a 2014 report from the Humanitarian Policy Group, Isis takes credit for the handouts in order to appear benevolent to local people. 

Water and electricity

The Al-Raqqah dam is still producing electricity and water which supplies the city and other parts of the country. Isis has attempted to take over the operation of various dams, plus a thermal power plant in the Aleppo province, showing it’s planning to take over and operate the existing infrastructure where it can. 


Similarly, Isis has apparently taken over operation of the postal service in its occupied territories. 


Isis has implemented its own police forces of local fighters, shown above in 2013. It also has a special police force, which, as part of its duties, guards Isis’s oil supplies along with heavily armed guards. 

Meanwhile, the Husba, or morality police, enforce the hijab, the fact that women cannot walk alone in public without a male relative, and a ban on smoking and alcohol.

Punishments, as per Isis doctrine, can range from whippings to beheadings or cutting off of hands. 


As with other services, Isis has worked within existing school systems rather than building up an education system again from scratch. However, it’s cancelled various parts of local curriculums, including philosophy, and introduced new, Isis-endorsed religious education. 

Putting severed heads on display to terrify your enemies 

Despite all this apparent order, Isis is, of course, still Isis. One former resident of Raqqa told Time magazine that he finally fled the city in 2014 when the group began displaying severed heads in the central square:

 They are [eager] to kill and to cut… They are just like animals. You see them [ISIS members] laughing and happy when they are standing near those heads. ISIS tries to control the people through fear.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
Websites in our network