Archiving Terror with the ISIS Files


Image 1

Mosul, 2017. Paperwork littered the remains of ISIS" bombed-out Ministry of Agriculture. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times/Redux). 

In 2014–2015, the world watched in horror as the Islamic State (ISIS) managed to gain control of an area the size of Great Britain in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and even the Philippines. Driven by an ultra-fundamentalist and millenarian ideology, ISIS subjugated, terrorized, and mercilessly killed its opponents. Its brutality is widely known, but much less recognized is its other tool—bureaucracy.

As a part of its “caliphate,” ISIS issued birth certificates and had a tax collection system, even a DMV. “The Islamic State’s capacity to govern is really as dangerous as their combatants,” says Fawaz A. Gerges, author of ISIS: A History. This bureaucracy, like any other, left behind a huge paper trail.

In September 2018, GW announced a partnership with The New York Times to digitize and make available some 15,000 pages of documents called the ISIS Files. These documents include land deeds, tax returns, military strategies, internal regulations, police files, grammar books, photos, and a myriad of other primary sources that reveal the inner workings of one of history’s deadliest and best-organized terrorist organizations.

Over the next two years, GW Libraries and Academic Innovation (GWLAI) will work with GW’s Program on Extremism to translate the documents into English, analyze them, and make them available in Arabic and English in an open, searchable website. This public repository will allow researchers around the world, including those in Syria and Iraq, to access a wide array of documents that provide invaluable evidence on the activities and atrocities carried out by ISIS.

“We’re very pleased to be partnering with The New York Times to make these documents available to researchers worldwide,” said Forrest Maltzman, GW’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Access to these documents will enhance our understanding of national security issues and provide an important window into the modern history of Iraq and Syria.” 

These documents record the history of the personal lives of very real people—people who have lived through unimaginable upheaval and whose safety is paramount. The documents will be fully translated and reviewed before they are made available online to help ensure that information that could harm civilians will not be published. In addition, accompanying expert analysis on relevant themes will be posted online so that the context is better understood.

“We are delighted that George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has agreed to preserve these documents and make them available in a responsible and transparent manner that serves history and the people of Iraq,” said Michael Slackman, international editor at The New York Times.

GWLAI is deeply committed to the preservation of the human record, and the promotion of its access. This public repository will serve as an account of genocide to aid in a better understanding of one of most dangerous terrorist organizations in decades, providing a sense of how such an entity runs a state and informing future policies to prevent the rise of the next ISIS-type of group.

“Publishing these documents serves multiple purposes: from understanding how the Islamic State functioned to exposing its many inconsistencies in order to undermine its appeal to contributing to the restoration of rights infringed by the group,” said Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, director of GW’s Program on Extremism. “We fully understand the many moral and security implications that accompany this project and are working to carry it out according to the highest standards. It is a massive endeavor that we hope will contribute to the preservation of the memory of a painful page of history.”

For more information on how to support this important initiative, please contact Tracy Sullivan, executive director of development, GWLAI, at 202-994-8928 or [email protected].