Events in Iraq and Syria during the last seven years constitute some of the darkest pages of an already tormented region’s recent history. The Islamic State, driven by an ultra-fundamentalist and millenarian ideology, took control of an area the size of Britain and ruled over its residents with an iron fist. It subjugated, terrorized, and confiscated the property of anyone who did not share their worldview. It mercilessly killed its opponents. It created a pervasive system for the enforcement of strict moral codes, meting out corporal and capital punishments to those they accused of violating them. It used its territory to plan and incite terrorist attacks worldwide. And it even officially introduced slavery, sanctioning it with religious edicts and imposing it on thousands of women from the Yazidi minority.
To carry out these and other atrocities, the Islamic State created a bureaucracy that was as sophisticated and, at times, even more efficient, than the ones run by the Iraqi and Syrian governments it replaced. In an attempt to portray itself as a fully-functioning state, it created ministries, administrations, a complex tax collection system, and even a consumer protection agency. This bureaucracy, like any other, left behind a long paper trail. Land deeds, tax returns, military strategies, internal regulations, religious rulings: a myriad of documents that reveal the inner workings of one of history’s deadliest and best-organized terrorist organizations.
During a series of embeds with the Iraqi army over the past few years, a team of New York Times reporters, led by foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi collected over 15,000 pages of documents abandoned by the Islamic State. The Times recently decided to deliver the original physical documents to Iraq and partner with an academic institution to review, research, and publish the digital copies. As the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University, a research center that studies terrorism and political violence, we take seriously the responsibility of working on this crucial endeavor with the Times.
It is our strong belief that academic institutions like ours have a mandate to document and preserve history, particularly when it comes to tragic events like wars, crimes against humanity, terrorism, or genocide. It is in this vein that, for example, various American universities have become principal repositories of records on the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or crimes committed by various dictatorial regimes. Similarly, the West Point Academy has overseen the publication of hundreds of documents seized by the U.S. military in various operations against al Qaeda. These efforts are complex and require difficult choices, starting with balancing the need to inform the public with that of protecting the security and privacy of individuals mentioned in the documents.
We will digitize the documents and publish original Arabic and translated English versions on an open, searchable website. This will allow researchers throughout the world to access a wide array of documents that provide invaluable evidence on the activities and atrocities carried out by the Islamic State. In publishing the documents, we also hope to aid the many victims of the Islamic States’ war crimes, chief among them the Syrian and Iraqi people.
The ethical, legal and security implications involved in this effort are plentiful and will be constantly considered in our work. But history must be preserved, lest future generations forget its lessons.