Islamic State, al-Shabaab and early western Europe

What do Islamic State and al-Shabaab have in common with early western Europe?
4 min read
16 Nov, 2018
Comment: If 'war makes states' then IS and al-Shabaab's elaborate taxation system and a monopoly on violence are the tools they use, writes Rose Worden.
Files belonging to Islamic State's administration are found in an abandoned house, Mosul, Iraq [Getty]
Development scholars and practitioners come up with creative terms to describe complexity across much of the developing world.

The presence of "hybrid political orders", and state "fragility" appear as exacerbating factors in domestic conflicts, which in turn tend to become "internationalised", and further prolonged.

Charles Tilly, American sociologist and political scientist, argued that the furnace of conflict forged western European states. The thrust of Tilly's arguments has to do with taxation, policing, and bureaucratisation in the service of war - a process which saw provincial rebellions repeatedly crushed, and more than 500 political units across Europe in 1500, consolidate to roughly 25 by 1900.

During this process, elites imposed regressive taxation schemes on local populations as they consolidated power, making little initial improvements to the "nasty, brutish and short" lives of most people.

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote his seminal work The Leviathan  three years after the Peace of Westphalia (considered the origin of the nation-state system), famously proposed that man must cede individual liberty to the sovereign, for the sake of order.
Al-Shabaab's taxation scheme "rivals the federal government in sophistication
Elites gradually cultivated a basis of domestic legitimacy through the extension of basic protections to the lower classes. Inter-elite competition shifted from the service of personal self-interest toward administrative maintenance, and the extraction of rents from the population within controlled boundaries. Emergent bureaucracies took on the form of modern states, and competition among state-like entities replaced personal competition as the dominant source, and form, of conflict throughout the region.

Scholars today regularly revisit Tilly's work in reference to contemporary conflicts throughout the developing world. Some offer creative takes such as the "reversed Tillyan perspective", to adapt his ideas, or make targeted arguments for their contextualised application.

Still decades before the Islamic State group or al-Shabaab would fully materialise, in 1985, Tilly repackaged his theory for the present day, reiterating that "war makes states" and "banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war-making all belong on the same continuum".

States, Tilly argued, are merely "protection rackets," imbued with legitimacy through their monopolisation of violence and control of capital. Tilly expressed "worries about the increasing destructiveness of war, the expanding role of great powers as suppliers of arms and military organisation to poor countries".

This internationalisation is one of many critical features setting the contemporary era apart from early Europe.

Monopolies of capital and violence now have global reach.

Without arguing that Tilly's thinking should apply to contemporary statebuilding, recent investigations in Somalia, and Iraq and Syria, suggest his ideas are still relevant to illuminate protracted conflict dynamics.

Both IS and al-Shabaab have systematically relied on taxation, the maintenance of bureaucracy, and policing, to gain legitimacy with local populations, as well as to extract capital and maintain monopolies of violence.

In Somalia, for years, al-Shabaab has managed to maintain control over some of the country's most fertile territory, supported by a lucrative, internationally condemned trade in illicit charcoal. The UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group has uncovered extensive details of the transit and taxation of the trade.
The group has also managed to maintain some legitimacy with the local population by providing services where the federal government has fallen short
Al-Shabaab's taxation scheme "rivals the federal government in sophistication", and its tentacular charcoal operation extends as far as Iran, where bags of the charcoal are relabelled as "product of Iran" before being shipped to their final destinations.

People living under al-Shabaab's rule may be subjected to arbitrary and violent punishment by the group's religious police, Jaysh al-Hisbah. Yet, the group has also managed to maintain some legitimacy with the local population by providing services where the federal government has fallen short.

In Somalia's Southwest state, where al-Shabaab has a long history, the high-profile former al-Shabaab spokesperson Muktar Robow, now under protection having surrendered to the government last year, is likely to win his bid to become regional president, at a time when federalisation has stalled.

In Iraq and Syria, New York Times investigator uncovered a trove of documents showing that an expansive and sophisticated taxation system bolstered the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, generating revenue at a six-to-one ratio of taxes to oil.
States are imbued with legitimacy through their monopolisation of violence and control of capital
According to the report, the "militants monetised every inch of territory they conquered", collecting taxes at every conceivable opportunity.

Though terrorised by the Hisbah, infamous for meting out grotesque and public punishments, some individuals reported improvements in garbage collection and other services.

Unlike in early Europe, IS operations grafted parasitically onto an already existing bureaucracy. Yet, many key features of Tilly's observations were present for a time.

Ten years after Charles Tilly's death, his ideas are as relevant as ever.


Rose Worden is a researcher and writer based in New York. She holds a Master's Degree in International Affairs from The New School and is focused on development and security in the Horn of Africa and MENA.

Follow her on Twitter @rswrdn

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.