Interview: Leaked Documents May Reveal The Inner Workings Of The Islamic State — But What If They Are Fake?
06 March 2016
By Adam Taylor
If you want to really understand the Islamic State and go beyond the
propaganda, looking at the militant group's internal documents might be a good
place to start. As the group expanded over the past year and attempted to turn
into a functioning state, it released several internal orders and decrees that
seek to organize this "caliphate." These documents offer a glimpse of not only
the way the Islamic State organizes but also the anxiety and disorder in the
group that lies under the surface.
One example of this comes from documents that were recently revealed by
Reuters and that appear to show the Islamic State decreeing who can have sex
with captured enslaved women and who cannot. The documents showed that a
bureaucracy appears to underpin even the most brutal acts committed by the
group and hinted that some of the extreme behavior by its fighters led even
the group's own religious authorities to balk.
On the other hand, some experts believe that some purported Islamic State
internal documents shared online are hoaxes, deliberately designed to deceive.
These fakes are widespread enough that Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a young British
analyst who has made a name for himself with his analysis of extremist
activity, recently published his own "guide to Islamic State document hoaxes."
Tamimi's guide pointed to three recent documents widely shared online that he
felt were fake. Some of these documents have fooled experts and media outlets.
One of these, which appeared to show that the Islamic State planned to abandon
Iraq's Fallujah province, was shared on Twitter by Col. Steve Warren, a
spokesman for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State. Another, which
purported to be a price list for sex slaves, was reported on by the Daily Mail
and cited by U.N. official Zainab Bangura.
Below, you can read Tamimi's explanation for why he thinks these documents are
fake, as well as his broader take on why internal documents will prove
important to understanding the Islamic State. Tamini's statements were sent
via email and have been slightly edited for the sake of clarity.
WorldViews: Do you think Islamic State document hoaxes are particularly
widespread? How many 'real' documents might there be versus hoax documents,
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: One consequence of the rise of the Islamic State with
the development of its administration on the ground over time — far more
sophisticated than anything al-Qaeda in Iraq [the predecessor of the Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria, which later became the Islamic State] could offer and
controlling much more territory — is that there are far more Islamic State
administrative documents in circulation within the lands it rules. When one
takes this point into account with the rise of open-source social media
channels to broadcast information, it is not hard to see how many authentic
documents end up being leaked to the public, whether by anti-Islamic State
activist groups [such as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and Deir az-Zor
24], local media outlets, or more obscure individuals, including some Islamic
Indeed, it turns out that at least some of the Islamic State fatwas being
claimed as exclusive revelations from the Abu Sayyaf raid [a raid conducted in
May that led to the death of top Islamic State official Abu Sayyaf and has
recently been cited as the source for a number of documents] earlier this year
were actually put up by an Islamic State member who called himself Abu Umar
al-Masri around a year ago. At the time I translated and put up some of the
fatwas in my raw archive of Islamic State documents. Cole Bunzel [an expert on
the Islamic State at Princeton University] then summarized all of them.
More recently, the Islamic State has recognized these problems of leaked
information and is accordingly acting to restrict Internet access and ensure
that as much information as possible only enters the public domain by its
approval — mostly in the form of its official propaganda wings, of course,
which still bombard the airwaves on a daily basis with new releases.
On balance, far more genuine Islamic State documents have publicly come to
light. Generally speaking, the fakes are few in number and fairly easy to spot
if you're familiar with prior specimens.
WV: Is there something about purported internal documents that makes them
especially appealing to experts and analysts, versus the more typical
propaganda and witness accounts?
Tamimi: Yes, there is much that is appealing about pursuing this line of
evidence. I think internal documents present a more definitive view of
happenings on the ground rather than witness accounts that are liable to
considerable variation not only from place to place but also individual to
individual, as well as problems of exaggeration and fabrication. Also, in
contrast with the propaganda, internal documents help point to aspects of
shortcomings within the Islamic State's administration that the Islamic State
does not want you to see.
For instance, the Islamic State has acknowledged in its propaganda the need
for more qualified medical personnel to help run its health department [Diwan
al-Siha], but internal documents show that one problem behind this shortage is
brain drain, such that on multiple occasions the Islamic State has issued
threats and ultimatums to confiscate property of doctors and other medical
personnel who do not return to the Caliphate.
Of course, propaganda is a basic problem beyond the Islamic State,
particularly in the field of jihadism studies, which has to deal with the fact
that this is what so much of the available information actually is. However,
that is not to say analysis of the propaganda yields no insights: Some of the
best work on Islamic State propaganda so far has been in the form of
statistical analysis by theme, definitively debunking the notion that the
propaganda is merely obsessed with gore, brutality and violence — a perception
amplified by popular media coverage of the worst Islamic State atrocities on
camera and video.
Another particularly interesting case of internal documents as a more solid
line of evidence in the case of the Islamic State touches on the controversy
in the spring of this year that claimed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [the group's
leader] was incapacitated. In April, a pro-rebel Twitter account with access
to information in northeast Aleppo province put up an internal document in
which Baghdadi called for a mobilization in the Syrian provinces to reinforce
the fighting fronts in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces in Iraq.
Sure enough, some three weeks later, an official speech by Baghdadi was
released on the subject of mobilization, and with the subsequent fall of
Ramadi, it is clear the Islamic State was pushing particularly hard to take
Ramadi as the provincial capital of Anbar, while the fighting fronts in Baiji
in northern Salahuddin were being used to pin down Iraqi forces. I think these
developments put to rest the rumors of Baghdadi's incapacitation that were
ultimately based on shaky oral testimony. With the demand for information on
the Islamic State, it can be tempting to leap on whatever morsels of oral
'insider testimony' might come out, but verification is extremely difficult.
WV: What are some tell-tale signs that a document has been faked?
Tamimi: The fakes that have been circulated are largely poor in quality. The
forgers seem to be ignorant of Islamic State labeling, there are recurring
motifs, and we see some clear attempts to take jabs at certain actors
perceived to be backing the Islamic State. For instance, two well-known
forgeries — a purported price list for Yazidi and Christian slaves and an
order to withdraw from Iraq — use the label "Islamic State of Iraq" (the
Islamic State's first predecessor to claim the statehood mantle, which it did
in 2006). No authentic document I have seen since 2013 uses this label, and it
is a very obvious error.
Unfortunately, the fact a U.N. official endorsed the price list as authentic
means that the forgery has continued to gain traction in the media. In terms
of recurring motifs, the one I have seen most frequently concerns supposed
orders for withdrawal: Many of these forgeries aim not only to portray the
Islamic State as on the verge of defeat but also try to depict any abuses by
Shiite militias and the Iraqi security forces as Islamic State fabrications,
besides playing on the widespread conspiracy theory of collusion between the
[Persian] Gulf states and the Islamic State.
In short, I don't think we are at the stage where forgers of Islamic State
documents are becoming sophisticated in techniques. This is unlike the realms
of collecting sports memorabilia and Nazi medals, where fakes can fool even
some of the best authenticators in the industries. I guess one reason is that
the financial incentive for forging Islamic State documents isn't so great.
WV: What might motivate someone to make and distribute a fake Islamic State
Tamimi: The incentives at present don't seem to be financial. It seems to be
more about playing on popular conspiracy theories, portraying the Islamic
State as on the verge of defeat, and inciting moral outrage and clickbait.
WV: You mention in your blog post that Col. Steve Warren says that U.S.
analysts believe the document about a withdrawal from Fallujah is real. Do you
think there is any chance they are right?
[Note: In a comment provided to Foreign Policy after his tweet sparked debate
about the legitimacy of the document, Warren said the document had been
discovered by Iraqi security forces and vetted by U.S. analysts]
Tamimi: I am fully convinced that the document is a forgery despite Warren's
attempts to claim otherwise. I haven't met Warren personally and can't claim
to know for sure what is going through his mind. But there's a possibility he
feels he must stand by the document to avoid public scandal and fallout,
whatever he currently thinks of its actual veracity. Otherwise, I find it
alarming if U.S. analysts actually vetted this document.
WV: The Islamic State already argues that there's a smear campaign against it.
How do these fake documents play into that?
Tamimi: The fake documents only bolster the Islamic State's narrative that its
enemies can only try to discredit the project by lying. This reinforces the
Islamic State's propaganda as the information environment for sympathizers and
supporters, in my view.
WV: What else should we bear in mind when looking at these documents?
Tamimi: Looking at the grand picture, one has to step back and admit the
primary limitation here: Namely, the documents uncovered so far still only
represent a small fraction of documents in existence. If most of the remaining
documents are to enter into the public domain, it is foremost necessary for
the Islamic State project to be defeated. Whatever forces, if ever, end up
expelling the Islamic State from cities like Raqqa and Mosul will hopefully be
wise enough to seize and preserve as many documents as they can find. In this
context, on a smaller scale, the seizure of files and documents by U.S.
Special Forces in the Abu Sayyaf raid represents a step in the right
Sometimes I am asked why I do not write a book on the Islamic State based on
some of the documents I have obtained. In my view, there is still a vast
wealth of information out there that will take many years at the minimum to
come to light. Writing a book at this stage seems premature. Just as the best
histories of Nazi Germany have been written well after the Second World War
with archives of documents made available to researchers, so I apply the same
reasoning to analyzing the Islamic State. As researchers we need to be aware
of the limits of our capabilities in obtaining information.