Refugees and the Islamic State’s Colonization Strategy


While we tend to think of the refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian conflict as incidental to the broader conflict with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, this is a dangerous assumption. The creation of refugees is a major component of the Islamic State’s strategy, emerging from the group’s utopian project to “renew” Islamic society. The Islamic State’s refugee-creation is a project of social engineering and its calculated barbarity, far from being a symptom of its radicalism, is a tool used to advance this project.

While analysis of the Islamic State’s instrumental use of violence is not new, undiscussed is the group’s use of violence to move and replace populations within its areas of control and how population movement assists its ability to “remain and expand.” It does this through its policy of extinguishing the “grey zone” of moderate Muslims, encouraging the hijrah of loyalists and expelling and executing dissidents, whose abandoned property is given to new immigrants, a fact confirmed by the report of an Islamic State official to a recent refugee. These points are key to understanding the organization’s end-game. In this vein, we can consider violence a hydraulic force beating the heart of the group: Its extreme systolic pressure sweeps away those caught before the violent flow while its diastolic intake draws a new, vigorous population inward. The end result is the outflow of a large population of potential dissidents, representing future instability, while the influx brings stability in the form of immigrants who become loyal citizens.

We can concretize this metaphor by using a hypothetical village constructed from a template of real villages. Its story shows us not only how the Islamic State plans its colonization efforts, but also how it moves populations out of settled areas and what it gains through their replacement. Our village is constructed from reports by Raqqah Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the Washington Post, and a multi-organization report on the status of minorities in Islamic State-held territory.

Imagine that the people of this village, which has traditionally been home to a diverse population, were energized during the Arab Spring and joined the opposition to the Assad regime. They also participated in the violent chaos that turned anti-regime demonstrations into an incipient civil war when one of the diverse, inchoate groups of Syrian freedom fighters occupied it from 2011 until 2013. This group, which had tenuous connections with larger rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army or Jabhat al-Nusra, sometimes supported the village by protecting it from the chaos of the larger conflict, but also at times harmed the village’s population as its leaders extracted “taxes” for protection and basic services, taxes which seemed primarily to benefit the rebel group at the expense of the village. This sometime hostility, sometime protection created ambivalence in the community towards the rebels. Consequently, when the armies of the Islamic State approached the village in 2014, the loyalties of the residents were torn. The Kurds of the town saw the Islamic State through the lens of its hostility toward their fellow Kurds elsewhere, while religious minorities feared the group’s infamous repression. Consequently, both viewed the previous rebel group as their only protection from a worse foe: the Islamic State. The large Sunni population of the town, however, considered the Islamic State, if not an unalloyed good, at least better than the occasional rebel predation; for while the Islamic State’s justice has been harsh, it at least has seemed consistent towards those who follow its edicts. Consequently, as the Islamic State seeped into the area, the village divided into potential collaborators and dissidents.

Some minorities and secular Sunnis fled. Others waited and fled later, if able, when forced to pay the jizya and other “taxes,” which in the Islamic State’s reading of Islam denote “humiliation” for non-Muslims. Sunnis who thought they could handle the group’s brutality, but in fact could not, might consider rebellion, but when they saw the swift vengeance the Islamic State dealt those opposing them, they also fled, leaving behind a mixture of Sunni devotees and ambivalents who would rather remain than risk the unknown: the least intrepid and most unlikely to rebel.

The absence of the village’s population that left created a gap of wealth, property, and space. This slack, representing potentially productive, but actually unproductive use of economic resources, created loss of livelihood and a shortage of labor, as well as social pressure to keep the ambivalent population in line. This emptiness presented an opportunity for foreign fighters who were, in contrast to many locals, motivated by the “purity” of the Islamic State’s laws, intentions and violence. They settled with the Islamic State’s blessing, taking over the missing townsfolk’s homes, farms and occupations. They provided needed labor and a socially stabilizing presence, a force which prevented the ambivalence of the local population from turning into hostility. I should note that this pattern, far from an innovation of the Islamic State, is ironically (given group’s anti-colonial stance) found in many colonial movements and represents a tendency of modern conflicts to turn refugees into weapons.

The Islamic State’s strategy of settler colonialism explains the group’s emphasis on recruiting women and non-combatants. They provide the civilian core the group requires to realize its Islamic colony. They provide a base for the eventual normalization of the Islamic State, a fact which seems to hold out the promise of moderation, but, as Afghanistan under the Taliban aptly demonstrates, does not lead to moderation in practice. In fact, the establishment of foreign settlers in the Islamic State’s domains may provide a radical, expansion-minded colonial regime with a ready, renewable army and the infrastructure to build sophisticated weapons for international adventurism. Moreover, the Islamic State’s normalization leaves a permanent refugee population outside the borders of Syria who cannot ever return home.

Europe’s refugee crisis cannot end until the Syrian crisis itself is resolved. Moreover, stabilization in Syria that ends the refugee flow must come from a stronger international intervention that contains both the Islamic State as well as Assad and the Russians. Assad and the Russians exacerbate the refugee problem through their indiscriminate targeting of ISIS and non-ISIS-affiliated rebels, making life in contested areas as intolerable as it is in areas controlled by the Islamic State. Merely housing the refugees, which has been the solution thus far, is an impracticable solution. Not only is it unsustainable and presents a risk of disorder in the West (by the far right, if not immigrants themselves), it also encourages the Islamic State’s colonization project by providing a reservoir for their excess population. Moreover, it does little to address the strength the Islamic State gains from the roots its settlers develop in Syria, for with each year, new children are born and the settlers come closer to considering their conquered territory home.

The Islamic State’s project of social engineering makes the creation of a plan for resolving the conflict even more confounding, because any such plan must also consider what to do with the colonists who have settled without intention to leave, a group whose home countries are unwilling for their return and who themselves are unlikely to surrender their land (according to the Washington Post, women commonly have suicide vests at home). Failing to resolve this issue will not only leave any peace settlement useless, but also likely lead to its collapse and a return to hostilities. Leaving the situation to be solved through escalations of force by Assad and Russia may be worse, for they are likely to resolve the problem of remaining jihadist families by the sword.


Jeffrey Bristol is a U.S. Army veteran with nearly a decade’s experience working in the intelligence community, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago and is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Boston University. His research interests are legal and political anthropology, particularly the structure and implementation of Islamic law in various societies and how Islamic law operates both within and without the state. He has conducted research in North and West Africa as well as in the United States.