ISIS Is More Than Just a 'Terrorist Organization'

The group looks and acts more like a government with a military than a traditional terrorist group.

Shiite fighters in Iraq respond to a cleric's call to defend their country against the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). (National Journal)

An extremist militant group has taken over number of major Iraqi cities at breakneck speed, but the threat it poses to Iraq and the world are unlike any terrorist threat we've seen before.

The White House refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as a terrorist organization. The group's name, however, reveals more about the nature of its aspirations. To reach its goal of establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has built itself to resemble a government, complete with a military, a police force, and public-works projects.

Rather than using targeted attacks to further specific goals, ISIS is waging full-out war on the Iraqi government in a campaign to capture territory, then governing those territories in an organized fashion.

ISIS is already laying down new laws in Iraq. Last week, the group handed out a "Contract of the City" to residents of the northern Niniveh province, where Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, is located. The Washington Post translated the contract's 16 main points, in which ISIS threatens to punish thieves by amputation, promises to sentence nonbelievers to death, and urges women to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary.

In The Atlantic, Aaron Zelin looks to the al-Raqqa state of Syria for a hint of how ISIS might govern in Iraq. In al-Raqqa, where ISIS has been in charge since 2013, the group provides policing, many public works, religious education, and health and welfare programs.

ISIS also has a strong public-relations arm that trumpets the group's successes and trawls for new recruits. It maintains an active presence on Twitter and YouTube — apparently a must for any terrorist in this day and age — and used social media to publicize claims of a 1,700-person massacre in Tikrit over the weekend. Residents in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a city far removed from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, found propaganda leaflets stuffed into their car door handles and windshields last month.

Just last week, a Twitter account called "Supporters of the Islamic State" tweeted a cartoon of ISIS fighters flying the black jihadist flag on the road to the Iraqi capital. An account named "ISIS Media Hub" retweeted the cartoon, shown below.

ISIS even releases annual reports that detail the group's tactics, objectives, and progress in its campaign to establish an Islamic state. Alex Bilger of the Institute for the Study of War examined the group's second annual report, released in March. The document is filled with more than 400 pages of detailed statistics and tactical notes. Noting the group's organized operating structure and sophisticated strategy, he concluded that ISIS is "functioning as a military rather than as a terrorist network."

And the report is not meant only for internal consumption. A well-designed cover and an infographic that breaks down attack numbers by type suggest that ISIS wanted the document to see the light of day.

"This is not a terrorism problem anymore. This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain," Jessica Lewis, an ISIS expert at the Institute for the Study of War, told Time. "They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern."

As ISIS continues to expand its control of Iraqi territory and make good on its promise to erase the boundary between Iraq and Syria, the war it is fighting against the Iraqi army is looking less like a battle between government and terrorists and more like a clash between two militaries with competing visions of how to rule their country. ISIS is indeed a terrorist organization, but with an unprecedented emphasis on "organization." To think of it as anything but the state that it aspires to be is to misunderstand the threat it presents.