ISIS proves vulnerable to its own ‘ghost armies’

ISIS may be claiming to wage a holy war for Islam but the self-declared caliphate is as vulnerable to the region's deep-seated corruption as the secular Iraqi and Syrian regimes it displaced.

Evidence from its former fighters and officials suggests that "ghost armies" are fighting on both sides of the conflict.

A year ago Iraq denounced deep corruption within its army, alleging 50,000 "ghost" soldiers had been drawing salaries from the military without serving.

According to Omar, a rebel commander who fought with Isis for more than a year before fleeing and asked not be identified by his real name, the same thing happened on his side.

"You'd have a frontline [Isis] commander apply for salaries for 250 people, but really he only has 150," he said. "When officials discovered the schemes they started sending financial administrators to deliver salaries. Then the administrators started agreeing with commanders on scams, too."

Ex-fighters and former employees who worked under Isis often argue that, for all the jihadis' talk of rejecting the secular Iraqi and Syrian governments they drove out, their officials often mimic those regimes' penchant for bureaucracy — and graft.

From agricultural management to food subsidies, the officials put in charge by Isis often adopt the same systems developed by the ruling parties of Syria and Iraq, including their excessive use of paperwork and stamps.

Locals say Isis co-opted decades-old institutions that secured loyalty through patronage. And the more Isis expands, the more it depends on officials and fighters who prize financial reward over its radical ideology. In Syria some of the officials hired by Isis are the same people once employed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.


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Abu Rasheed, a hospital pharmacist from Syria's eastern city of Mayadeen who asked to use a false name for his safety, says he was surprised when Isis hired a medical official fired by the Assad government. The official was accused of embezzlement, and appears to have attempted the same scheme under Isis: he wrote dozens of fake medicine orders and, after receiving the money, burnt down the dispensary to avoid being caught.

"There's no doubt that some of the effects of this power are turning them into something we would recognise as a corrupt, autocratic system," said one western intelligence official who follows Isis.

Even so, intelligence officials say Isis tolerates much less graft than previous regimes. The group's comparative efficiency and lack of corruption was repeatedly mentioned by residents during the jihadis' takeover as a reason they were prepared to tolerate the group — a sobering assessment for the coalition, which needs to work with partners like the Iraqi government to beat Isis.

"The reality is that prior to [Isis] control of Mosul, things were probably more corrupt," the western official said. "They deal with corruption harshly."

Not harshly enough for Abu Rasheed. When Isis leaders discovered the medical scam, they arrested the official, shaved off his hair and beard to disgrace him, and forced him to take a course in Islamic law. "But, according to their own laws, they should have cut off his hand," he said.

Syrians and Iraqis living under Isis rule say they increasingly sense weak spots in the system that they believe are the result of growing corruption.

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They point to the proliferation of people-smuggling out of Isis territory since the leadership banned residents from leaving most parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Locals often bribe Isis fighters to look the other way at checkpoints, making its borders more porous.

Isis corruption scandals have become lore among former fighters, who gossip about emirs that spirit fortunes over the border into Turkey, then disappear.

The rebel commander who worked with Isis says that in his area of eastern Deir Ezzor province, an emir known as Abu Fatima al-Tunisi ran off with some $25,000 in zakat (a form of tax) funds. He says the fugitive fighter left a message to former comrades on Twitter: "What state? What caliphate? You idiots."

Additional reporting by Sam Jones in London