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The Bureaucracy Behind the Death Cult of IS

Leading international politicians call them psychopathic monsters or a death cult. Blank Spot Project’s unique photo reportage proves that ISIS are far more sophisticated than that. Through a number of exclusive objects we see clear signs of state-building.

Black mask

Black mask

Location: Outside buildings of an abandoned IS-military base. Sarrin Grain Silos, Motorway M4, Aleppo Province, Syria.

Description: The mask was found at an IS-military base along with other pieces of clothing. The mask is the same kind used during the brutal execution of the American journalist, James Foley.

James Foley was decapitated in August of 2014 in front of a camera after IS held a threatening speech in English addressing President Barack Obama. In a series of subsequent propaganda films recorded in 2014 and 2015, journalists and aid-workers from the US, Great Britain and Japan were beheaded, along with soldiers with the Syrian regime. In all cases, the executioners wore black masks.

The beheadings immediately caught global attention, just as IS wanted, and the masked murderers became a symbol of IS’s brutality. In February 2015, one of the leaders, “Jihadi John,” was identified as 26-year-old Mohammed Emwazi. He was born in Kuwait, but grew up in west London. Jihadi John was reported dead after an American bomb raid in November 2015.

Administrational records and other official documents

Location: Various offices in an administrative building and a medical clinic. Sarrin, Syria.

Description:  Married couples must fill in the details on how they helped the Caliphate and the area they come from, in order to get points on pre-printed wedding certificates. If they have been loyal a long time, if someone has been injured, or if the wife has previously lost a husband, brother or father in the Jihad, they get extra points. The sum of the points determines the size of contribution the couple will receive from the Caliphate welfare system.

Every day, the IS disperses the ”Daily News”, a simple sheet for soldiers with updates from the fronts in Syria and Iraq. The Daily News also includes information from other countries such as Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai, where groups have sworn allegiance to the IS and where they themselves carry out attacks and killings.

The IS also hands out more professionally-designed color brochures. One of them is a guide on how to wash after ejaculation. A man who has had intercourse with a woman or masturbated in solitude, in both cases, has to wash his hands three times, then throw water on his penis and then wash his whole body—with soap or sand. Any particular rules for women are not spelled out aside from the fact that neither man nor woman need to wash if he or she inadvertently orgasmed while sleeping.

Posters listing crimes and Sharia punishments

Location: By a main road in Sarrin, Syria.

Description: The poster shows how different crimes are punished.

According to the poster: “Thefts of a value higher than a quarter dinar will result in your right hand being chopped off; the consumption of alcohol will give you 40 lashes; and thieves who also assault people shall be killed by crucifying, get their hands and feet severed, or, be thrown into exile. Those who are of age and engage in extramarital affairs shall be stoned to death.”

“The punishment for homosexuality is death through burning, stoning or being thrown from the highest point of the village or town,” one of the texts clarifies.

In the last portion of the poster, crimes in Islamic versus Western states are compared. The United States, for example, is listed as an unsuccessful example and the IS refers to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of crimes committed up to every five seconds in every minute in America.

Propaganda pamphlets and newspapers.

Location: An administrative building, and at a medical clinic. Sarrin, Syria.

Description:The IS newspaper, “Al-Yeraa,” is distributed both online and print form. An article from 2014, found in a medical clinic, states that IS was founded when they fought American occupation forces in Iraq. Another article has religious content, while yet another is more news-oriented regarding the war developments in Tikrit (Iraq), Homs (Syria), Tell Hamis (Syria) and in Libya.

The newspaper also has a section called “Scoop,” where it’s revealed that IS has managed to get ahold of secret maps revealing positions of the Iraqi regime’s army.

Found on site were also a number of ideological pamphlets about religious precepts, morality and social interpretations. The pamphlet “Rules that all female and male Muslims must follow,” begins with praise for Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, the founder of the Wahhabist movement, which today is the state ideology of Saudi Arabia. It explains that people whom worship gods other than the Prophet are “Kafirs,” disbelievers or infidels, and friendships with such people are to be broken by true Muslims.

Pieces of the Islamic State’s flag

Location: In an administrative building by a fountain. Tal Abyad, Sarrin, Syria.

Description: The black flag with the white tex, has become a well-known symbol of IS across the world. The IS has copied several other violent Salafist groups using the traditional black banner, which has been around in different forms since the birth of Islam.

On the IS flag the phrase: ”There is no God but Allah [God],” written in white and below it a white circle similar to Prophet Mohammad’s seal, where it states “Mohammad is the messenger of [God].” Together it builds the Islamic declaration of faith, also called “Shadada” and is the first of Islam’s five pillars.

The fact that the IS uses the Islamic declaration of faith on its fla, has upset many Muslims across the world.

Leather Glove

Leather Glove

Location:  On top of a tunnel dug by the IS. Kobane, Syria.

Description: The glove was worn while the IS dug tunnels to protect themselves from American bombs during the battle at Kobani. The tunnel began in the middle of a house but was never completed. The IS had access to electricity and transported dirt up and out by a winch. On the floor lay brand new jackhammers, still in their boxes, and next to them wrappers for Turkish chocolate.

IS built tunnels like this one in order to transport weapons and soldiers within city limits. The first tunnel was discovered around Christmas 2014, when Kurdish Forces advanced toward the southeastern part of the city. The battle for Kobani paved way for today’s military cooperation between the Kurdish so-called YPG guerillas and the US.

English and Arabic definitions, written by a IS recruit.

Location: In a building next to a couple of grain silos, refitted as a military base for IS. Sarrin Grain Silos, Motorway M4, Aleppo Province, Syria.

Description: Many of the foreigners who has come to fight for the Islamic State neither speak nor read Arabic. Obviously some of these recruits spend their spare time studying it. The handwritten notes were found in a building where IS soldiers had lived. Among the words written down are various kitchen utensils, body parts, animals, geographical directions, names and prepositions.

Camouflage Mask

Kamouflagemönstrad mask

Location: Sarrin Grain Silos, Motorway M4, Aleppo Province, Syria.

Description:The mask was found outside of an abandoned IS-military base along with some other discarded apparel.

The Islamic State has distributed a large number of propaganda films where their warriors and recruits participate openly with their faces uncovered and recognizable. Sometimes they participate in clips designated to recruit Muslims in home countries. Other times, the IS wants to the identities of their warriors kept secret and are therefore masked. One reason to keep identities hidden is to enable foreign soldiers to travel home, for example. The mask also gives the impression of a uniform. When IS-warriors have worn desert-colored camouflage masks, they have also worn matching uniforms.



Location: In buildings in the southern outskirts of Hasakah in Syria. The area was previously occupied by IS soldiers.

Description:The painkillers were found at a recent IS-front. Painkillers such as Paracetamot and similar types of medicines (often sold over the counter, no prescription needed, in the West) are outlawed by the IS.

The Islamic State has tried to show an official picture of themselves and their society-building as puritan, orthodox and ruthlessly strict against all drug use. All addictive substances are “haram”, which means strictly forbidden. In IS propaganda films, members are shown crushing liquor bottles burning Cannabis plants that were supposedly found outside of Aleppo, and gathering and burning piles of pharmaceuticals, too.

Still, it appears drug use is common among the IS troups. Kurdish Forces say they have found pills, capsules and syringes on dead IS-warriors.

The role of Women in the Jihad against the Enemy, an IS political propaganda pamphlet.

The role of Women in the Jihad against the Enemy, an IS political propaganda pamphlet.

Location: In a medical clinic, previously controlled by the IS. Sarrin, Syria.

Description: The IS-pamphlet: The Role of Women in the Jihad against the Enemy is (obviously) addressing women. The text blames women for Jihad not being as successful or fully-realized as possible. It stresses that women’s roles could make a difference. Does she encourage or hinder her husband, father or brother in joining the Jihad? It also questions whether the woman is raising her children with the teachings of Islam and Jihad, or not.

”You have to understand, my Muslim sister, that your mission is greater than you think. Because it is your fault if Islam is defeated, because if you did your responsibilities for the Islamic State, we would not have been defeated.”

The pamphlet ends with a message summoning them to become “illuminated figures” in the “Golden Age of Islam” as mothers, sisters, or wives of a hero. Part of this pamphlet was torn off and made it into a grocery list by its carrier. On it are: onions, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and paprika.

IS financial records

Location: In an administrative building, twenty-four hours after IS lost the control of the area. Sarrin, Syria.

Description: On Saturday, 12/3, year 1435 (Sept. 27, 2014) the General Financial Institution in Serrin, Wilayat Aleppo, entered in the books that a named man received 200,000 Syrian pounds from the State. Abu Husam purchased, on behalf of the State: filtered Diesel, sardines, laundry detergent, slippers for indoor use, large quantities of Coca-Cola, as well as sandwiches for prisoners. Repair costs for a car tire and an engine were also included in the bookkeeping. Every purchase is individually recorded on separate and signed receipts.

The Caliphate of the Islamic State is divided into provinces called Wilaya, as it was in the previous Caliphate under the Ottoman Empire. Each province has its own administrative and financial authority, with branch offices in several cities.

The system is largely based on the first, medieval Caliphate method to manage money by Bayt al-Mal – an Islamic central bank of sorts, which both collected taxes and supervised public expenditures. The person who is in charge of a local subsidiary of IS’s Bayt al-Mal makes payments to cover the States local expenses. Everything is recorded carefully, as if by an accountant, in order to avoid corruption.

Military bag belonging to a foreign IS-recruit

Location: In the garden outside of a medical clinic. Sarrin, Syria.

Description: By its proclamation of their own Caliphate, the Islamic State and its highest leader Prince Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed the leadership role of the whole world’s Sunni Muslims. IS has made a big deal of proclaming their own provinces, thus blurring national borders as they did with the dismantled the Syrian-Iraqi border last year, breaking a colonial agreement from 1916.

Still, some recruits that arrive from the outside remain regarded as foreigners, “Muhajir” in Arabic. The recruits themselves appear to view themselves the same way—they see themselves as citizens of a completely new state. One recruit, who previously owned this olive green military bag, clearly reasoned as such, writing the word “foreigner” in his bag.

Cassette tape of Salafist speech

Location:  From the front lines south of the city, Hsakah in Syria. By an IS bunker bombed, just two weeks ago, by the US coalition.

Description:  The tape that was found outside of Hsakah contains a sermon on religious purity and the resulting punishment for those who do not pray. The tape shows older Syrian zip codes, but was recorded by Said bin Mesfar bin Mufrah, a Salafist preacher with a Saudi-sounding name.

The extreme religious-political elements of the Islamic State take inspiration from Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, also known as Salafism, found in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabist scriptures from Saudi Araiba frequently circulate within the IS, both in terms of education and propaganda— oftentimes the foundation for all practical work. According to I Wahhabist tradition, IS has also instituted its own religious police corps, Hisbah, which maintains Sharia law, morals and the dictate for prayer.

Prayer Beads and Sunglasses

Prayer Beads and Sunglasses

Location:  In a building next to a couple of grain silos, refitted as a military base for IS. Sarrin Grain Silos, Motorway M4, Aleppo Province, Syria.

Description:  Prayer beads, called misbaha, are used by Muslims around the world. An IS-warrior wore this set until he died in combat with Kurdish forces. The prayer beads were found next to grain silos near the eastern bank of the Euphrates river. The sunglasses were found in the same area, possibly a symbol of the western world and its modernities. But in contrast to the Afghani Taliban, there’s no conflict between tradition and modern life with the IS—both prayer beads and sunglasses are allowed.

Notebook, English-Arabic dictionary, and a book about the Koran in Albanian.

Location: In a building next to a couple of grain silos, refitted as a military base for IS. Aleppo Province, Syria.

Description: An estimated 30,000 people have traveled from all around the world to join in the effort to build an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, meaning many IS recruits cannot read or speak Arabic. The finding of an English-Arabic dictionary in a recently lost military base illustrates the IS-soldiers’ ambitions to communicate better despite language barriers.

In many cases, civilians also join, wanting to support the self-proclaimed Caliphate. In some cases, whole families have arrived, or women come to get married. Many men come alone to join the fight and are sent to the fronts.

Some times these foreign warriors leave behind telling objects or traces of their origins. One man left behind a book in Albanian, published in 2013 in Tirana, which explains how the Arabic Koran is supposed to be properly read and pronounced. Some one else has left behind a notebook that was manufactured in Germany and lists the names of several fighters, one American, one Canadian and several Bosnians.

Cigarette Lighter

Cigarette Lighter

Location: Underground tunnel, dug by IS. Kobani, Syria.

Description: The lighter was found in a tunnel underneath a street in Kobani on Christmas Eve, 2014. The tunnel was dug as a shelter from American aerial bombs. Next to the lighter were several cigarette butts.

The new Caliphate Islamic State’s Sharia courts have created a number of strict laws designed to prevent what they consider undesirable social elements and maintain the morality of its citizens.

Drugs and any substances causing intoxication are criminalized and breaking the law can result in anything from a small fine to public execution. These laws also prohibit the smoking of tobacco cigarettes, which is punished by large fines.

In some cases, cigarette smoking has been punished by the severing of fingers. Refugees from the Caliphate “capitol” Raqqa, have described how Hisbah, the IS police force, even smells people in search of cigarette smoke. All while former prisoners testify that the IS soldiers themselves are exempt from the harsh rules they enforce on civilians.

Note about gift to the Islamic State, and entries about debts from foreign IS-recruits.

Note about gift to the Islamic State, and entries about debts from foreign IS-recruits.

Location: In a building on a military base, three weeks after IS lost the area. Sarrin Grain Silos, Motorway M4, Aleppo Province, Syria.

Description: A foreign, IS-recruit has left a note in English, where he donates his car to the Caliphates and its Bayt al-Mal (“House of money”), which is a traditional Muslim financial institution dating back to the 600eds. According to the note, the car is designated for a Canadian man.

Calling their financial structure “Bayt al-Mal” is a deliberate allusion to the medieval caliphate and its ancient glory days.