ISIS, terror, mobs and what makes a state a state

By |
Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Timothy P. Carney,Terrorism,Oil,ISIS

When the Carney brothers got together over Labor Day weekend, one of our activities was seeing how many countries each of us could name. (You're jealous, I know.) At one point, this became a debate over whether Niue counts as a country. This, of course, led to a discussion of what makes a country a country. Along the way, the question arose: is ISIS really a state?

You can consider the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria a terrorist organization, but you can also consider it a particularly murderous and oppressive state. Which is it?

In the context of this question, read this Wall Street Journal article:

The Islamic State runs a self-sustaining economy across territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, pirating oil while exacting tribute from a population of at least eight million, Arab and Western officials said.

That, of course, is what terrorists, mobs, pirates, or thieves do. An "illicit economy" as the Journal reporters put it.

But read more closely. ISIS "is a largely self-financed organization," funded through "an orderly extortion system of business and farm tributes, public-transport fees and protection payments from Christians and other religious minorities ..."

What the article should explain is how "business and farm tributes" are different from, say, taxes on business and farm profits. "Public-transport fees" sound like either tolls or user fees. Other theocracies have charged a tax to religious minorities, so "protection payments" from them sounds like something a state would do. The difference can't be whether the businessmen agree to the tax, because many businessmen in all countries object to some of the taxes they have to pay. They pay the taxes because the alternative is jail.

"From the territory the group has taken, it controls the sale of oil, wheat and antiquities ..." Petro-states are petro-states because they are states that control the sale of oil. This isn't good. But do we think it disqualifies the petro-states from statehood?

Here's another interesting passage:

"At the time, no one could do any simple daily transaction or business—a truck couldn't pass down the road—without payment," Mr. Abu Hanieh said of al Qaeda in Iraq's heyday. "This local revenue strategy continues," he said.

Again, what is the difference between this and a state? Is it because the people administering it are evil? North Korea's government is evil, but is it not a state? States can't be evil? Remember Hussein's Iraq? Many states kill their subjects without due process.

Many states — including my favorites — gained their territory through violence against pre-existing states.

Is it that ISIS lacks consent of the governed? ISIS has consent of some of the governed, it seems. No state has approval from all of the governed. Many states lack consent of the governed (think, China).

We don't want to call ISIS a state, because it is evil, murderous and oppressive. But that way of thinking might impart more virtue to the idea of statehood than it deserves.

View article comments Leave a comment

More from