Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat

Updated: 22 February 2016

Conflicting information regarding the Islamic State and the evolution of the war emerge everyday from the media, while analysts, commentators and official statements are no less swaying. For example, on 13 April 2015, “Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman” stressed that the Islamic State had “ceded 5,000 to 6,000 square miles of territory”, painting a “rosier portrait” as reported by Mitchell Prothero and James Rosen for McClatchy DC (15 April 2015). A mere two days later, the same spokesman was describing battles in Ramadi and Baiji in a sobering way, even though Prothero and Rosen also underline that “U.S. officials have been cautious about overstating Iraqi successes against the Islamic State” (Ibid.) – since then Baiji is again under Iraqi government control, while fighting continues in Ramadi and more generally Anbar, see Rudaw, 22 April 2015; 29 April 2015; 26 April 2015.

As another example, if the Islamic State has lost ground and the city of Tikrit and if the situation in Anbar remains contested (e.g. Bill Roggio & Caleb Weiss, The Long War Journal, 26 April 2015), on the other hand, a first psyops video from Yemen, “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Yemen – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā’” was also “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Yemen – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā'”, Yemen, Islamic State, ISIS, ISpublished on 24 April 2015 (see Jihadology.net*), after the 20 March 2015 first statement “Adopting the Martyrdom Operations Against the Dens of the Ḥūthīs – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā’” (Jihadology.net). This could signal the start of real activities there. Indeed, Yemen was declared a Wilayat in November 2014 (Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s model“, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015, Ludovico Carlino, IHS Jane’s, 25 March 2015), but, according to Zelin (Ibid.), hardly activity had been seen by the end of January. We would thus have both attrition and expansion.

Psyops and propaganda, the fog of war, as well as the difficulty to obtain reliable information on the Islamic State, all interacting, contribute to this  complicated situation.

The scope, intensity and evolution of the threat constituted by the Islamic State, its Khilafah and the worldview and system they seek to establish (see the Psyops series), as well as the length of the war and the prospects for its fate, fundamentally depend upon the Islamic State’s ability to be successful in meeting aims located along three interacting dimensions: Wilayat Sanaa, Yemen, Islamic State, IS, ISISconsolidating and developing the Islamic State and its Khilafah as a polity in all its facets, asserting supremacy over actual or potential competing groups and fighting victoriously against attacking foes (see H. Lavoix, “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 16 January 2015). As a result, defeating the Islamic State implies attacking along these three dimensions, permanently hindering each aim.

Previously, we focused on the Islamic State’s psyops as a way to understand better its belief-system, way of thinking, worldview and objectives. We notably underlined that its current and potential influence, as well as the related power of its approach, are grounded in its ability to promote a specific coherent ideology anchored in a real material territorial state-like power, thus synthesising idealism and materialism (see for the detail H. Lavoix, “Worlds War“, Ibid.). Now, we shall address the material or concrete side of the Islamic State, although not forgetting the socio-ideological model which is at its foundation, focusing on the Islamic State’s ability to indeed create a real polity. We shall seek to improve our understanding of the type of polity, with its specificities, that is being formed. Our ultimate aim is to be able to contribute to a foresight assessment of the sustainability of the Islamic State, in other words to answer to questions such as: Is the Islamic State about to collapse? Is it reinforcing? Will it last one, two, or ten years?

We shall here focus on the overall structure of the Islamic State and its Khilafah and identify a meaningful unit of analysis, with specificities that can then be monitored to foresee and warn about the overall developments of the Islamic State.

[Check also the 22 February 2016 detailed analysis for the Islamic State structure and wilayat in Yemen using the framework explained here: “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Wilayat and Wali in Yemen“]

Internal governance and external wilayat?

The first difficulty when describing a polity is not to introduce unwillingly biases, notably by projecting unconscious models we may have of the way a political entity functions onto another. Keeping in mind the diversity of political organisations over time and space, from, for example, the southeast Asian pre-modern “galactic polity” system (Tambiah, 1976) to the modern nation-state through the European feudal system, on the one hand, and the originality of the Islamic State system merging Salafism thus old Islamic texts with materialism and use of twenty-first century techniques and approach, it is most probable that we shall often or to the least sometimes be faced with political units and dynamics that will not correspond to our usual, implicit, modern-state model. We are likely to also find hybrid, novel, or different political practices and organisations.

The first differentiation that most analysts of the Islamic State’s organisation, relying on scant sources, seem to make is to distinguish between “external and internal governance”, thus reproducing more or less the usual differentiation between domestic political organisation (the state and its administrative divisions) wilayat, Iraq, Islamic State, governance, war, Is, ISISand external one (from client states, to allies through colonies). We thus find studies of what seems to be conceptualised as focusing on the “Islamic State proper” – i.e. what territory has been captured in Syria and Iraq and is ruled, apparently directly – on the one hand and, on the other, analyses of areas which are declared by the Islamic State as wilayat, often following a pledge of allegiance done by a group that is a would-be state actor and its acceptance by the Khalif.

The first case is exemplified by Barrett’s The Islamic State (The Soufan Group, November 2014). The author relies mainly, for the part regarding leadership and “governance structure”, on an analysis published by The Telegraph (Ruth Sherlock, 9 Jul 2014; see for a use of apparently the same source, CNN and TRAC, 14 January 2015), using “information, which was found on memory sticks taken from the home of Abu Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi, al-Baghdadi’s military chief of staff for Iraqi territory” to which the analyst Hashimi al Hashimi “had access”.

According to Hashimi, Sherlock, and Barrett, we thus have a highly centralised structure (Barrett: 28) headed by the Khalifah (Caliph, the person who is the stewart for the Khilafah, the political organisation), advised and legitimated (knowing that legitimacy may also be questioned) by two councils, the Shura council and the Sharia council, seconded by two deputies, one being responsible for Iraq and the other for Syria, then by various councils (we shall come back to this more in detail with the next post, see “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – The Calif and Legitimacy“). The Islamic State was then divided into 18 wilayat, eight in Iraq, nine in Syria and one, Wilayat Al-Furat, on the border between Syria and Iraq (Ibid.: 33). Still using this approach, but updating it, by March 2015, according to Dabiq #8 (p.27) we have 20 wilayat: ten in Iraq, nine in Syria and Al-Furat.

Islamic State, wilayat, Iraq, Syria, war
The Islamic State wilayat in Mesopotamia by H Lavoix, Red (Team) Analysis – background map: Military situation as of 28 April 2015 by Haghal Jagul – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – Click to access larger image

A wilayat is translated variously according to dictionaries. For Lewis (The Political Language of Islam, 1988: 123), it means governorship or province. As these terms may have different political  meanings, it is better to keep initially the original meaning and then to explain it through the Islamic State system itself. We shall thus use Lewis explanation according to which the “vali and vilayat are the Turkish pronunciation of the active participle and verbal noun of the Arabic root w-l-y, ‘to be near’ and hence ‘to take charge of’ (Ibid.). By extension wilayat will be “what is taken charge of”, “what is ruled”.

In the second case, we have analyses focusing rather on external wilayat, such as Aaron Zelin’s (ibid., see also a monthly power ranking AQ vs IS and the categories used), actually aiming first at comparing and contrasting the Islamic State wilayat system and Al-Qaeda franchises.

Khorasan sc
Official presentation for the 28 April Video “Targeting apostasy Pakistani army mortar in the Khyber region” Wilayat Khorasan
wilayat Khorasan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Islamic State, ISIS, IS
Still from the video

Here, we thus have, connected to the Islamic State, “Algeria (Wilayat al-Jazair), Libya (Wilayat al-Barqah, Wilayat al-Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Fizan), Sinai (Wilayat Sinai), Saudi Arabia (Wilayat al-Haramayn) and Yemen (Wilayat al-Yaman)”, to which must be added Wilayat Khorasan, i.e. Pakistan and Afghanistan (Ibid.). More recently, Boko Haram would have been renamed the Islamic State’s West Africa province or ISWAP (Adam Whitnall, The Independent, 26 April 2015), which would have become Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah (see Jihadology.net, 31 March 2015).

According to Zelin, “it [The Islamic State] has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.” Zelin, however, emphasises that Libya and Sinai are “following the same methodology on the ground and in the media as the Islamic State’s wilayat have in Iraq and Syria” and that “its [The Islamic State] media apparatus took over the media departments of all the local wilayat outside of Mesopotamia”. He lybian arena scthen points out that Libya – as is clear also from the attention given to it in Dabiq, see #5, #6, #7, #8 – has “the most potential to replicate the Islamic State’s model in Mesopotamia if things go right for it,” with three wilayat having been created. Zelin then further underlines similarities that are developed in the governance of these wilayat, while pledges are demanded to be made to the Caliph. As a result, the author brings these wilayat further away from an implicit initial categorisation (external versus internal), on the contrary showing that they are progressively dragged closer to the center. The search for a new framework for analysis may be signaled here by the use of the term Mesopotamia, to break away analytically from the existing international order.

wilayat al Barakah, Syria, war, Islamic State, Is, ISIS
Official image for the video “Lion of the Battlefield #2 – Wilāyat al-Barakah”, 16 April 2015, watch on Jihadology.net

If the approach of separating external wilayat from internal ones is convenient, easy to understand and clear, we may also wonder if it is not potentially unwillingly misleading because failing to fully represent reality. Indeed, if we had two such categories, then why would the Islamic State use the same label for both, i.e. wilayat. Furthermore, if we consider the relatively a-local and a-geographical idea that is included in the notion of ribat, which led us to revise our understanding of what is foreign and what is domestic, from the point of view of the Islamic State (H. Lavoix “Ultimate War“), as well as the aim to establish a Khilafah, thus a unique entity over the whole world, then are we sure we can truly fully categorize differently wilayat located within the Islamic State and those “outside” it?

On the other hand, the Islamic State and its leaders have shown their pragmatism, which was emphasised again by Der Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State” (18 April 2015). In this thorough analysis of documents originating from Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi aka Haji Bakr, former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force, and mastermind behind the Islamic State’s “subjugation” of part of Syria, Reuter explains the dynamics of infiltration and domination used by the Islamic State leadership, as well as the security apparatus of the wilayat al khayr prier scIslamic State. Among others, this underlines that the initial step towards expansion, for the Islamic State, is not only military but also, and maybe foremost, religious. This aspect of underground taking over was also confirmed as far as the city of Mosul is concerned by Al-Tamimi analysis (“Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province: Part III“, January 23, 2015).

Considering the Islamic State leadership’s pragmatism, it is most likely that real distance from the Khilafah’s center, as well as the position of an external group within the dynamics of revolt against the existing order play a role in the type of organisation and relation to the center for each wilayatThis is what can be deduced from Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi fascinating analysis “The Islamic State and its ‘Sinai Province’” (26 March 2015) to which we shall now turn as he gives us the key to a most probably more adequate understanding of the Islamic State system, as already implicitly present in Zelin’s work.

A global wilayat system articulated around administrative and military strength?

Comparing three pledges of allegiance and the response to them made by the Islamic State, Al-Tamimi explains in each case the answer, and how it is translated in administrative and political terms. If we generalise Al-Tamimi’s understanding, which is also congruent with what Zelin explains, it would come that, in the case of further away (in all understandings of the word) and relatively weak groups considering the area where they operated, such as “Indian jihadi group Tanẓim Ansar al-Tawheed” (pledge made in May 2014), there is no official answer from the Islamic State. The group is thus merely used “for propaganda work” (Ibid.).

Actually, and this point does not question Al-Tamimi reasoning and explanation, if we follow the explanation by the Islamic State as given in Dabiq #5: 24, acceptation of pledges would have been done for all groups (Dabiq‘s list, unfortunately, is generic, ending a list of groups by “and elsewhere”), but declarations of wilayat would be delayed. Only how this delay will end is then explained: case 1 – “appointment or recognition of leadership by the Khalifah for those lands where multiple groups have given bay’at and merged” and case 2 – “establishment of a direct line of communication between the Khilafah and the mujahid leadership of lands who have yet to contact the Islamic State and thus receive information and directives from the Khalifah” (Ibid.).

wilayat sinai, Islamic State, IS, ISIS
“Harvest of the Military Operations for the Month of March-April 2015 – Wilāyat Sīnā’ (Sinai)” – 26 April 2015 – See on Jihadology.net

Then, for groups such as the Gaza-Sinai Jamaʿat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (pledge: November 2014), the Islamic State’s official answer is translated as the creation of a new wilayat, here Wilayat Sinai (now Wilāyat Saynā’, according to various psyops products – updated 16 Feb 2016). Thus, these groups are estimated by the Islamic State’s leadership, according to Al-Tamimi, as being able to “give the IS brand a viable military presence and ultimately a state-like representation in the area in question” with a strong media arm. They are thus transformed into wali as the territory where they operate and ultimately more or less rule becomes a wilayat. The extent to which they will be or remain wali remain to be explored. However, if we refer to Dabiq’s explanation, the wali is specifically considered as “appointed by us [the Islamic State] for it [the declared wilayat]” (Dabiq #5: 25). This, thus, further supports Al-Tamimi thesis according to which the Islamic State must be sure enough of the strength of the main group when declaring a wilayat.

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For these specific cases of wilayat, Al-Tamimi also points out that there are not yet there any “significative Islamic State administrative division” or even “proto-state bodies”; what can be found, besides military operations and media is only “‘proto-Hisbah’ (Shariʾa law enforcement)” (Ibid.). Note, as detailed by Al-Tamimi in the case of Sinai, that the challenge for each wilayat, notably at this turning point or early stage, is similar to the triple aim that exists at the larger Islamic State level, and involves notably leading other groups, tribes and factions to pledge allegiance to the Khalif as well as uniting these actors.

Finally, the third case identified by Al-Tamimi is represented by Wilayat al-Barqah (centered around Derna in Libya), where “Islamic State state-like institutions” have been set up, such as “a Diwan al-Hisbah (enforcing Islamic morality), a Diwan al-Taʾaleem (education) and a Diwan al-Awqaf wa al-Masajid (religious outreach and control of mosques),” while military control appears stronger (Ibid.)

To understand at best the Islamic State polity it would thus make sense to take the wilayat as main unit of analysis and then to consider as main characteristics not its geographical location compared with Iraq and Syria, but the degree of Islamic State-like administrative and military control over the population and the territory, while media control would start being implemented as soon as possible, even for the least advanced groups. A tentative map using this system is presented below. Dynamically, it is also interesting to point out that we move from a group and its pledge to a territory with its administrative system, which is, ironically, not without presenting similarities with the move from ruling over followers as in pre-modern systems to the territorially bounded state as in the modern state one. This similarity should, however, not be overstated considering the most probably crucial role of religion, as we shall see more in detail in forthcoming posts.

Islamic State wilayat, IS, ISIS
The wilayat of the Islamic State – 29 April 2015, by H Lavoix for Red (Team) Analysis. In white surrounded by black the most inactive wilayat. In grey those wilayat where fighting is preeminent and only extremely sparse administrative/Sharia’h activity takes place. In black the most administratively advanced wilayat. The classification for Mesopotamia is tentative. Add to the map, wilayat Qawqaz (Caucasus), created on 23 June 2015 on part of the Russian Federation territory (ref: Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS Declares Governorate in Russia’s North Caucasus Region“, ISW, 23 June 2015) – Click to access large image.

Would this approach be also coherent for wilayat that are located within Syria and Iraq? If we turn to Caris and Reynolds who analysed ISIS governance in Syria (ISW, July 2014), they also emphasise the dynamics of first establishing military control then moving to political control through the establishment of governance and state structure, articulated around “administration and Muslim services” (Ibid: 14). Comparing Wilayat al-Khayr (Deir ez-Zour, where military operations are still ongoing, e.g. Ara News, 28 March 2015) to Wilayat al-Raqqa (where the Islamic State’s is seen as strongest and most established), dewan of health al Raqqa scthey further specifically underline that the level of sophistication of governance and services implemented is proportional to the degree of military control, as identified by Al-Tamimi in the cases of Wilayat Barqa and Wilayat Sinai. Thus the model outlined would also fit wilayat located within Iraq and Syria.

We should underline, however, that some wilayat, notably in Syria (namely wilayat al-Lādhiqīyah and wilayat Idlib), do not present any activity since the Islamic State withdrew in March 2014 (Caris and Reynolds, Ibid: 8, 13), but remain, nevertheless, wilayat, probably in prevision of potential future operations. This stresses first the importance of considering the fluidity of war and second  the need to apply this framework, as all models, more as guideline than as rules set in stone.

Although we would ideally need a detailed assessment of each wilayat, furthermore monitored over time to fully confirm the validity of our wilayat-based model, as such it is most likely to be sufficiently representative of the reality of the Islamic State to be used as ideal-type framework for understanding how the Islamic State polity functions and to assess the odds of its survival and expansion or, on the contrary decay and disappearance.

With the next posts, we shall further detail the political dynamics, processes and structures of the wilayat system within the Islamic State.

Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.


* A special thanks should be given by all researchers and analysts of the Islamic State to Aaron Zelin for maintaining Jihadology.net, as this allows us all to access Jihadis videos and documents, not only in a single place but also easily, as increasingly access to Islamic State documents seems to be forbidden from some countries.

Similarly the translation work and primary research done by Aymenn Al-Tamimi are immensely useful.

Of course, these thanks do not diminish in any way the interest of both scholars’ analyses.



Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province: Part III”, Iraq Insurgent Profiles (aymennjawad.org), January 23, 2015.

Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “The Islamic State and its ‘Sinai Province'”,Tel Aviv Notes: Moshe Dayan Center, 26 March 2015.

Barrett, Richard, The Islamic State, The Soufan Group, November 2014.

Caris, Charles C., & Samuel Reynolds, ISIS governance in Syria, ISW, July 2014.

Lavoix, Helene, “The Islamic State’s Psyops – Ultimate War”, Red (Team) Analysis, 9 February 2015.

Lavoix, Helene, “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War”, Red (Team) Analysis, 19 January 2015.

Lewis, Bernard, The Political Language of Islam, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, no. 22, p. 123.

Reuter, Christoph, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015.

Roggio, Bill, & Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State captures dam, overruns base in western Iraq”, The Long War Journal, 26 April 2015.

Sherlock, Ruth, “Inside the leadership of Islamic State: how the new ‘caliphate’ is run”, The Telegraph, 9 Jul 2014.

Tambiah, Stanley, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State’s model”, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015.