Originally published under the title "Leaked Documents May Reveal the Inner Workings of the Islamic State — But What If They Are Fake?"
Fake ISIS documents "are few in number and fairly easy to spot if you're familiar with prior specimens," according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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 Mailand 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, for example?
A fake price list for Islamic State sex slaves.
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 State members.
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.
Is there something about purported internal documents that makes them especially appealing to experts and analysts, versus the more typical propaganda and witness accounts?
This forgery appears to show that the Islamic State planned to abandon Iraq's Fallujah province.
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.
What are some tell-tale signs that a document has been faked?
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.
What might motivate someone to make and distribute a fake Islamic State document?
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.
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]
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.
The Islamic State already argues that there's a smear campaign against it. How do these fake documents play into that?
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.
What else should we bear in mind when looking at these documents?
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 direction.
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.