The events in Iraq and Syria over the last seven years constitute one of the darkest chapters in recent history. Nearly decimated in 2011, the insurgents that went on to form Islamic State (sometimes referred to by its previous name ISIS) succeeded in seizing a territory the size of Great Britain just three years later. They captured major population centers, including Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Driven by an ultra-fundamentalist and millenarian ideology, the terror group dominated its residents with an iron fist. It subjugated, terrorized and confiscated property of religious minorities. It mercilessly killed its opponents. It created a pervasive system of enforcement of strict moral codes, meting out corporal punishment to those who did not abide by them. It used its territory to plan and incite terrorist attacks worldwide. And it even officially introduced slavery and justified rape, sanctioning it with religious edicts and imposing it on thousands of women from the Yazidi minority.
To do this, the Islamic State created an intricate bureaucracy. Seeing itself as a state, it created a vast administration that touched every aspect of people’s lives. It ran ministries, administrations, and a complex tax collection system. It even ran a marriage office, oversaw medical examinations, and issued birth certificates to babies born under the caliphate. And this bureaucracy, like any other, left behind a huge paper trail, a myriad of documents that reveal the inner workings of one of history’s deadliest terrorist organizations.
Beginning in 2016, as an international coalition launched an offensive to take back the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi and her Iraqi colleagues embedded with the Iraqi military. Over five separate trips, spanning months of on-the-ground reporting first in Mosul, and then in 10 other cities and towns in Iraq, New York Times investigative journalists and translators, with permission from local military units, collected over 15,000 pages of documents left behind by the Islamic State. Uncollected by local intelligence officials, the documents include land deeds showing how property was stolen from religious minorities, financial reports documenting the millions of dollars passing through their coffers, manuals detailing their operations, and detailed arrest warrants. Taken one at a time, each piece of paper often does little more than document a single, routine transaction: a land transfer between neighbors; the sale of a ton of wheat; a fine for improper attire. But taken together, the documents in the trove reveal the inner workings of a complex system of government.
The documents, which came to be known as “The ISIS Files,” constitute the largest collection of original files from ISIS held by any non-governmental entity. The New York Times understood the importance of making this collection available to the public.
Partnership with The New York Times
In September 2018, The New York Times announced a partnership with the George Washington University (GW) to preserve, digitize, translate, and provide analysis of The ISIS Files documents and publish them on an open, searchable website.
Immediately after digitization of the files, the original copies of the documents were hand delivered by The New York Times to the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in Washington, DC. The ISIS Files project does not hold any original documents.
Translation, redaction, and analysis were undertaken by GW with the advice and partnership of The Times. All document redaction was done in line with an ethical framework developed and implemented by GW. The Times holds no responsibility for redaction of documents.
Generous support for the planning phase of The ISIS Files project was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Starting in September 2018, the GW Program on Extremism (PoE) hired a company to professionally scan The ISIS Files documents. The documents were named and categorized using a standardized system that allows for systematic identification. Each document has also been checked individually for quality control. The ISIS Files project does not hold any original documents.
The vast majority of The ISIS Files are in Arabic. Understanding the importance of providing high-quality and culturally competent translations, the Program on Extremism hired two experienced translators to lead the translation effort. Both translators are Iraqi natives with considerable experience as professional translators for prominent national and international institutions. The translators were asked to follow strict translation guidelines to ensure that there is consistency in spellings across all documents. After the initial translation, each document was then checked by at least two Arabic-fluent individuals.
GW would like to thank Hedayah, European Institute for Counter Terrorism and Conflict Prevention, and the Government of Spain for translating the files in the education report, “Planting the Seeds of the Poisonous Tree: Establishing a system of meaning through ISIS education.”
GW’s Program on Extremism and GW Libraries and Academic Innovation, with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, engaged in 18 months of planning, research, and consultations with some 300 institutions and experts from a broad array of related disciplines to craft an ethical foundation for this effort. Extensive work has been done to preserve and present the information contained in The ISIS Files in an accurate and impartial manner.
The ethical, legal and security implications involved in this effort are plentiful. Balancing the need to inform the public with that of protecting the security of individuals mentioned in the documents is a particularly challenging task. To achieve this balance, the documents have been redacted, and personal identifiable information has been removed according to the principles in our ethical framework.
The ISIS Files provide a unique snapshot of some aspects of how the group thought about certain issues and functioned in certain fields. But this information acquires significantly increased value when properly analyzed and contextualized. For this reason, each batch of The ISIS Files documents will be released along with a research study that will focus on the same topic. These studies analyze and contextualize The ISIS Files on the specific topic, combining them with what is already known about the topic from other sources.
Planning, design, and implementation of The ISIS Files repository prioritized preservation of the documents, security, and usability of the interface. Original unredacted scans cannot be accessed from the public repository. Architecture of the repository was specifically designed with multiple, redundant security features. Stakeholders around the world were engaged in the process of interface design by sharing their use cases, reviewing wireframes, and discussing preferred features.
The project team is deeply grateful for the support provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Ongoing project status
The ISIS Files repository is an ongoing project. Additional documents and accompanying analysis will be posted onto this website as they are analyzed.
How to cite The ISIS Files
Simple/short citation template: The ISIS Files file number, document date, [permanent URL].
Example: The ISIS Files 02_000294, May 11, 2016 [permanent URL].
Full/long citation template: "Name of File." The ISIS Files file number, document date [permanent URL]. Accessed [date, month, year].
Example: "Hisba Monthly Accident Report." The ISIS Files 02_000294, May 11, 2016 [permanent URL]. Accessed [date, month, year].
The Program on Extremism
The Program on Extremism at the George Washington University provides analysis on issues related to violent and non-violent extremism. The Program spearheads innovative and thoughtful academic inquiry, producing empirical work that strengthens extremism research as a distinct field of study. The Program aims to develop pragmatic policy solutions that resonate with policymakers, civic leaders, and the general public.
Director: Lorenzo Vidino
Deputy Director: Seamus Hughes
Director of Strategic Initiatives and Senior Researcher: Devorah Margolin
Senior Researcher: Haroro Ingram
GW Libraries and Academic Innovation
GW Libraries and Academic Innovation (GWLAI) is the bedrock of scholarship and learning at GW. GWLAI supports the academic experience, integrating teaching, learning, and research throughout the university. GWLAI supports faculty in their research as well as instruction and curriculum design. As faculty take their research to the classroom, LAI manages the learning environment – both physical and digital. As students translate their coursework into practical experience, LAI supports development and deeper exploration of their skills, preparing students for their careers and future research.
Dean of Libraries and Academic Innovation and University Librarian: Geneva Henry
Senior Associate Dean of Libraries and Academic Innovation and Deputy University Librarian: Hannah Sommers
Associate Dean for Student Success and Communication: Robin Delaloye
Associate Dean: Elizabeth Waraksa
Special Assistant to the Dean: Tyler Cundiff
Director of Scholarly Technology: Matthew Mihalik
Senior Software Developer: Daniel Kerchner
Middle East and North Africa Librarian: Amal Cavender
Project Manager: Quinn Baron
Metadata Analyst: Sultan Alamer
Document Accessibility Specialists: Holley Matthews, Patricia S. Greenstein, Suzette Strickland, Tara Patterson, Wren O'Kelley