Understanding Displacement Decisions During Rebel Governance: Evidence from Mosul, Iraq

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Mara Redlich Revkin[1], Yale University

What are the conditions under which civilians living in territory captured by an insurgent group will prefer its system of “rebel governance” to that of the incumbent state? Given the opportunity to flee to government-controlled areas, IDP camps, or neighboring countries, who stays and why? This essay presents qualitative evidence from interviews with 61 Iraqis from Mosul (“Moslawis”) conducted during and after the Islamic State’s three-year rule over the city to explore a variety of factors—social, political, economic, and psychological—that influence individual decisions to stay or leave territory captured by a rebel group with state-building aspirations.[2]

The Islamic State (hereafter “IS” but also known by its Arabic acronym, “Daesh”) is a Sunni jihadist group that claimed to be building a new caliphate based on the earliest model of Islamic governance (March and Revkin 2015). At the height of its expansion in late 2014, IS controlled and governed 20 major Iraqi cities (including Mosul) with an estimated population greater than five million (Robinson et al. 2017, 192-194). When IS first captured Mosul in June 2014, it allowed civilians to enter and exit the city freely for several months. Given the choice between living in a city governed by a violent group with uncertain intentions and fleeing, existing theories would have predicted out-migration on a massive scale. Contrary to this expectation, however, an estimated 75 percent of Mosul’s pre-IS population of 1.2 million was still living in the city eight months after the group’s arrival (Robinson et al. 2017, 86).

Since residents of IS-controlled areas paid taxes to IS and faced pressure to join or work for the group, the question of why so many civilians remained in IS-controlled areas when they had the option of leaving is an important one. Rebel groups rely heavily on civilians to obtain food, water, shelter, labor, and information (Wood 2003; Kalyvas 2006), and IS could not have captured and governed Mosul for as long as it did without the compliance and active support of some of the city’s population. Those who stayed (“stayers”) provided human and economic resources—whether voluntarily or involuntarily—that enabled IS to hold and govern territory.

While recognizing that decisions to stay or leave territory captured by a rebel group are multi-factorial, this essay presents preliminary evidence for a theory of civilian perceptions of “relative legitimacy.” Interviews with Moslawis suggest that at least some of those who stayed after IS’s capture of the city perceived relative improvements in the quality of governance under IS rule in comparison with the quality of governance provided by the Iraqi state previously. In some cases, staying appeared to be an indicator of acceptance of IS as a legitimate sovereign or at least a preference for its system of governance over that of the Iraqi state. As one doctor from Mosul explained why many residents of the city acquiesced to IS rule, “As the people say, it is better than [the Iraqi] government.”[3] This finding suggests that weak rule of law and ineffective governance in Iraq may have contributed to civilian acceptance of and cooperation with IS rule.

This is not to say, as is now assumed by many Iraqis, that anyone who lived for years under IS rule is a collaborator and therefore complicit in IS’s crimes (see Younes and Ayhan in this collection). This problematic assumption has contributed to the mass incarceration of at least 19,000 people on IS-related charges since 2014 of whom more than 3,000 have already been sentenced to death.[4] In fact, many civilian residents of IS-controlled territory disagreed with the group’s ideology, were victims of its violence, and only complied with its policies in order to stay alive. By inviting Moslawis to explain, in their own words, their motivations for staying in or leaving IS-controlled territory, this research identifies a variety of social, political, economic, and psychological factors that influenced displacement decisions under IS rule—many of which are completely unrelated to support for IS.


Existing theories of displacement do not fully explain why so many Moslawis stayed in the city after IS’s arrival. Previous work has found that high levels of violence increase the likelihood of movement (Bohra-Mishra and Massey 2011). Given IS’s perpetration of extreme violence—including public beheadings and beatings of civilians—as well as the aerial bombardment of Mosul by the U.S.-led Coalition starting in October 2014, this research would predict significant out-migration to areas with lower levels of violence. Furthermore, deteriorating economic conditions caused by conflict often lead to “exit” from political systems (Hirschman 1970). Contrary to these expectations, however, an estimated 75 percent of Mosul’s pre-IS population of 1.2 million was still living in the city eight months after the group’s arrival (Robinson et al. 2017, 86). Although these numbers are difficult to interpret given evidence of in-migration by IS supporters and foreign fighters,[5] it appears that a significant percentage of the population stayed. Who stayed and why?

Prior work on conflict-related displacement has focused primarily on “leavers.” In contrast, this article focuses on “stayers”—those who remain in rebel-controlled areas. The literature has also tended to overlook the role of civilians’ past experiences with the state in their decisions to stay or leave territory captured by a rebel group with state-building aspirations. Therefore, this article links previous research on conflict-related displacement with a growing literature on rebel governance (Kasfir 2015; Arjona 2016; Mampilly 2011; Huang 2016; Stewart 2018) that has explored the ways in which pre-existing state institutions may either constrain or facilitate efforts by rebel groups to create new political orders. For example, in Colombia, civilian resistance to rebel governance was less likely in areas where pre-existing institutions were both legitimate and effective (Arjona 2016, 71). I build upon these findings to argue that the quality of governance provided by an incumbent state affects the displacement decisions of civilians living in territory captured by a rebel group that offers them a competing political order.

Previous research on rebel governance has explored “processes of legitimation” (Duyvesteyn, 2017) through which rebel groups attempt to win the cooperation of civilians in contexts of “multi-layered governance” where multiple state and non-state actors compete for local support within the same civil war (Kasfir, Frerks and Terpstra, 2017, p. 263). I build upon this work to develop a theory of “relative legitimacy” that helps to explain why mobile individuals with a choice between two or more political communities may prefer the one whose authorities and institutions they perceive as more legitimate—or simply less illegitimate—than the other. Therefore, this concept could alternatively be described as “relative illegitimacy.” Understanding legitimacy in relative rather than absolute terms helps to explain why a person might perceive a government as illegitimate, corrupt, or untrustworthy in absolute terms but nonetheless prefer it to an alternative that is even worse (Kasfir, Frerks and Terpstra, 2017, p. 259). I look for evidence of legitimacy through two of its observable implications: (1) the effectiveness of governing institutions and (2) the fairness of governing institutions. Importantly, relative legitimacy is not the sole determinant of displacement decisions but interacts with several other factors: (1) economic resources, (2) social and family structures, (3) information, and (4) threat perceptions.

Mosul and the Islamic State

In the years prior to IS’s arrival, the predominately Sunni residents of Mosul had grown increasingly frustrated with Iraq’s Shia-controlled central government, which they perceived as corrupt, discriminatory, and ineffective. At the beginning of the Arab Spring in February 2011, protesters in several Iraqi provinces demanded the resignation of governors and local councils, the elimination of corruption, job creation, and improvements in basic services. Videos of protests from Mosul during these years show signs bearing slogans including: “No to sectarianism,” “We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi Federal Police from the city,” and “Stop insulting human rights” (Revkin 2019, 12).  

Alongside growing frustration with corruption and bad governance, IS’s precursor—al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—was becoming increasingly powerful. In 2004, AQI temporarily occupied more than 30 police stations in Mosul and began to establish a “shadow government” that would exert growing influence over security and service-providing institutions in subsequent years. As early as 2008, AQI was operating courts and collecting taxes in Mosul (Revkin 2019, 12). By November 2013, a local journalist reported that “Mosul has two governments. By day, it’s the local government, but at night, it’s al-Qaeda.”[6]

IS overran Mosul over the course of five days—June 6-10, 2014—with little resistance from the Iraqi Army. Given the history of anti-government activism and insurgency in Mosul prior to 2014, it is unsurprising that many residents of the city cooperated with IS fighters and some even welcomed them. Videos taken in the early days of IS’s occupation of Mosul show residents dancing and parading in celebration (Revkin 2019, 13). Civilians described the first few months of IS rule as a kind of “honeymoon”[7] in which IS “did not show its true colors”[8] while the group attempted to earn trust and support by implementing popular policies. These included the removal of government checkpoints where Sunnis were regularly interrogated and detained by Iraqi police on the basis of sectarian profiling, subsidized bread and fuel, and improvements in the availability of electricity and clean water.[9]

Although IS quickly announced its intent to implement a strict and selective interpretation of Sharia with a constitution-like “Charter of the City” that banned alcohol, cigarettes, and immodest clothing, among other restrictions, enforcement was initially lax (Islamic State 2015). At first, sellers of prohibited products such as tobacco were asked “politely” to close their businesses, while owners of clothing stores were asked to cover the hair of their female mannequins. Over time, however, IS became increasingly strict and unforgiving in its enforcement of the rules. By March 2015, cigarette sellers who would have been let off with a warning in the early days of IS rule were being thrown into prison and publicly beaten (Revkin 2019, 14).

While IS was ratcheting up the enforcement of its rules within Mosul, the group also began to limit travel and migration out of its territory with a series of policies that became increasingly restrictive over time, culminating in the imposition of a de facto travel ban on March 10, 2015. Although exit eventually became almost impossible without the help of smugglers, for the first nine months of IS rule (June 2014 until March 10, 2015), civilians were allowed some degree of freedom of movement into and out of Mosul, raising questions about why some stayed while others left.

Evidence from interviews

Over the course of three research trips to Iraq in February, April, and December 2017, I collected qualitative data through interviews with a non-random convenience sample of 61 individuals from Mosul and nearby areas of northern Iraq that were all captured by IS in June 2014.[10] Interviewees were identified through snowball sampling based on initial contacts facilitated by local research assistants and through visits to public institutions in Mosul—a hospital, several schools, and a municipal services office—that had been captured and administered by IS. Forty-nine of the interviewees had stayed in IS-controlled territory for the duration of IS’s rule (“stayers”) and 12 were “leavers” who had left IS-controlled territory when exit was still possible—before March 10, 2015, which is the day on which IS imposed a de facto travel ban. Due to the geographical dispersion of “leavers” in IDP camps and other areas outside of their communities of origin, they were more difficult to locate than “stayers” and therefore are underrepresented in my sample of interviews. Since the objective of this essay is to shed light on the motivations of “stayers,” my analysis of the interviews focuses heavily on that group.

Also, given the small and non-random nature of my sample, all of the evidence from these interviews should be interpreted cautiously. For ethical and security reasons, all interviewees are identified by pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. Qualitative evidence from these interviews provides preliminary support both for my theory of relative legitimacy and for five other well-established determinants of displacement decisions: economic resources, family structures, threat perceptions, and information. These findings are consistent with the results of my related quantitative household survey of 1,458 Moslawis (Revkin 2019).

Perceptions of relative legitimacy: Effectiveness and fairness

Evidence from interviews suggests that many “stayers” perceived improvements in the effectiveness of IS governance in comparison with the previous period of Iraqi government rule, consistent with my theory of relative legitimacy. Tamir, a butcher in Mosul, said that his industry had been lobbying the Iraqi government for years to improve the regulation and sanitation of slaughterhouses in order to prevent dishonest butchers from selling diseased animals to unsuspecting buyers. He said, “When Daesh [IS] came, they required all butchers to bring their animals to a central slaughterhouse where animals were inspected for illness and the whole process was safer and better organized.”[11] Bassem, a school administrator, said, “They [IS] distributed garbage cans throughout the city and started collecting the trash twice per week—much more often than the Iraqi government did previously. Then they started to impose fines for littering, so the streets stayed very clean. To be honest, Mosul was the cleanest I had ever seen it.”[12]

Many of the “stayers” I interviewed also perceived improvements in the fairness of governance under IS rule. Latif, a restaurant manager, described several instances in which IS police or courts punished the group’s own members for breaking rules or mistreating civilians, sending the message that no one was above the law. He recalled one altercation between the owner of a bakery and an IS fighter who cut to the front of the line, claiming that he was in too much of a hurry to wait his turn: “When the owner asked the fighter to go to the back of the line, the fighter kicked him in the face and ran away with a bag full of bread.” The owner complained to IS’s Sharia court, which sent police to the bakery to interview witnesses. The court ruled in favor of the owner and ordered the fighter to apologize publicly.”[13]

Economic resources

The economic resources of Moslawis may have either facilitated or impeded their departure. Those with higher levels of mobile assets would have been more likely to leave due to their greater ability to afford the costs of travel and resettlement elsewhere, consistent with research finding that socioeconomic status is an important determinant of evacuation decisions during natural disasters (Elliott and Pais 2006). On the other hand, fixed assets may have been a constraint on exit given IS’s systematic expropriation of houses and other property abandoned by “leavers.” “Stayers” may have been motivated by the desire to protect their property. In addition to the economic value of houses and land, legal scholars have argued that the ownership of private property confers important non-economic benefits including “personhood” (Radin 1981), community belonging (Cooper 2007), and dignity (Pils 2009). These non-economic benefits of property ownership may have created additional barriers to exit.

Evidence from interviews indicates that displacement decisions were heavily influenced by economic resources. Faisal said, “I did not have enough money to travel and I would not have been able to provide a good life for my family in another place.”[14] However, for some Moslawis, fixed assets appear to have been a constraint on mobility. Several interviewees said that they stayed in Mosul to protect their houses or land from expropriation by IS, which was known for seizing immobile assets left behind by “leavers” and redistributing them to its fighters and supporters. This pattern is confirmed by newspaper reports from 2014 describing the return of wealthy landowners—including Christians, despite their persecution by IS—who initially fled the fighting but later came back to Mosul to avoid forfeiting valuable properties.[15] As Fares explained, “I was afraid that IS would take my property. My family worked for years to be able to buy a house with a piece of land, and we did not want to lose it.”[16]

Social and family structures

A second factor is the role of social and family structures. Migration and displacement decisions are often made collectively by a family unit rather than individually (Boyd 1989). Individual “migration decisions depend heavily on those of others” (Granovetter 1978, p. 1424) and previous research has found evidence of “peer effects” (Hiwatari 2016).

Many interviewees referred to family and social structures—both inside Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq—as important factors in their decisions to stay or leave. For example, Fatima said, “Most of our friends and family were also staying in Mosul so we felt safe.”[17] Similar stories were reported by Iraqi newspapers in the days following IS’s takeover of Mosul including that of one man whose family, which initially fled the city during the fighting, “decided to return to Mosul because … my brother and his family had returned the previous day and reassured us” that the city was safe.[18] Some residents of Mosul said that they were initially inclined to trust IS because friends or family members were cooperating with or employed by the group. Dalia said, “Some of our neighbors, whom we had known and trusted for our whole lives, continued working in civilian institutions [e.g. schools] that were taken over by IS, so we believed that they would not hurt us.”[19]

Karim identified the absence of social networks outside of Mosul as a constraint on his ability to leave: “I have no relatives or friends outside of the city who could help to support me.”[20] Others explained that large families and elderly or sick relatives made travel more difficult. Khaled said, “I had a six-month old baby who was receiving treatment for a heart defect at the hospital in Mosul and was too ill to travel.”[21] Tarek explained, “The fact that there are women and children in my family made moving much more difficult.”[22]


Third, lack of information or misinformation about IS’s reputation and plans may have influenced decisions to stay or leave. Since IS’s treatment of civilians started out relatively lenient and became increasingly harsh over time, Moslawis may have underestimated IS’s repressive intentions until it was too late to leave. Relatedly, some may have stayed because they had inaccurate expectations about the duration of IS rule, believing or hoping that the group would be defeated much sooner than it actually was.

Interviews indicate that many residents of Mosul knew very little about IS in June 2014 and had unrealistic expectations about how long the group would remain in control of the city, suggesting that displacement decisions were sometimes influenced by lack of information or misinformation about IS’s reputation and plans. Khaled said that one of his reasons for staying was that “we didn’t expect them [IS] to last very long.”[23] Amira, a university student, and her family were on a trip to another Iraqi city, Sulimaniyah, when IS captured Mosul in June 2014. The family decided to return “because we didn’t know anything about this group at the time, and I did not want to interrupt my studies at the university.”[24]  Adnan said that he stayed because “it seemed impossible for IS to hold the city for more than a few weeks given the strength of the Iraqi Army.” Adnan also admitted that IS “treated us well at the beginning,” although he later became disillusioned: “Gradually, they dropped the act and I realized that this group was not at all Islamic but actually a criminal mafia. But by that point, it was too late to leave.”[25] Reporting from the early days of IS rule provides additional evidence for the finding that many residents of Mosul were uncertain about IS’s intentions. As one in Mosul explained, “Despite my positive impression [of] the new rulers of Mosul, I have fears that they may ban music … We have plans to have concerts … but the consequences for doing that remain unclear.”[26]

Threat perceptions

A fourth factor is perceptions of the relative levels of danger both inside and outside of Mosul. Residents of Mosul faced with the decision to stay or leave when IS arrived may have weighed the risk of airstrikes targeting Mosul against the risk of roadside bombs or other hazards that they might encounter on the roads leading out of the city.

Evidence from interviews suggests that perceptions of danger both inside and outside of Mosul were a factor in displacement decisions. Ahmed, a journalist whose profession made him a target because of IS’s ban on independent media, said that he “stayed because IS was arresting journalists on charges of espionage. There are many IS checkpoints on the roads leading out of Mosul and I was afraid that if I tried to exit the city, I would be stopped and questioned.”[27] While fear of IS checkpoints—a hazard outside of Mosul—was cited as a reason for staying, other dangers inside of Mosul were cited as reasons for leaving. Some internally displaced persons (IDPs) told journalists in 2014 that they had fled Mosul not because they objected to IS but primarily to avoid airstrikes and the impending battle. One man said, “I want to go back to Mosul, but we are afraid we’ll see another Fallujah,” referencing the heavy airstrikes targeting that city.[28] Another IDP explained, “We aren’t afraid of ISIS but we know the conflict will escalate in the future; this is why we’re living under these hot tents.”[29]


Displacement decisions during rebel governance are multi-factorial and almost all of the Moslawis interviewed for this article cited several factors that influenced their decisions to stay or leave. Evidence from interviews with “stayers” and “leavers” provides some preliminary support for a theory of relative legitimacy, suggesting that weak rule of law and ineffective governance in Iraq prior to June 2014 may have contributed to civilian cooperation with IS, but I also find support for several other well-established determinants of migration during conflict: (1) economic resources, (2) social and family structures, (3) information, and (4) threat perceptions. This research illustrates the complexity of decision-making under conditions of fear and uncertainty during conflict, casting doubt on mon-causal explanations for displacement.




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[1] Postdoctoral Fellow, Yale Law School. Email: mara.revkin@yale.edu.

[2] In a related working paper, I analyze the determinants of displacement decisions quantitatively with data from an original door-to-door survey of 1,458 residents of Mosul. Draft available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3365503.

[3] Holly Williams, “In captured Iraqi city of Mosul, residents welcome ISIS,” CBS News (Jun. 17, 2014), https://www. cbsnews.com/news/in-captured-iraqi-city-of-mosul-residents-welcome-isis/.

[4] Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George, “Iraq holding more than 19,000 because of IS, militant ties,” (Mar. 22,

2018), https://www.apnews.com/aeece6571de54f5dba3543d91deed381.

[5] For example, IS supporters from other areas of Iraq and Syria reportedly moved to Mosul and oc- cupied houses abandoned by “leavers.” Ali Unal, “Iraq expert Bilgay Duman: Mosul operation may last longer than planned,” Daily Sabah (Oct. 23, 2016), https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/ 2016/10/24/iraq-expert-bilgay-duman-mosul-operation-may-last-longer-than-planned. See also Baghdad Post, “ISIS Families Fear Persecution,” (Jun. 8, 2017), http://www.thebaghdadpost.com/en/story/11776/ ISIS-families-fear-persecution-in-Iraq.

[6] Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Wave of Journalist Killings,” (Nov. 29, 2013), https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/11/29/ iraq-wave-journalist-killings.

[7] Niqash, شهر عسل مؤقت بين داعش ومواطني نينوى  (“Temporary Honeymoon Between Daesh and the Citizens of Ninewa”), Niqash (Jun. 12, 2014), http://www.niqash.org/ar/articles/security/3458/.

[8] Interview with “Marwa” (35, teacher) in Mosul (April 2017).

[9] Ruth Sherlock and Carol Malouf, “Despite Decapitations and Deaths, Thousands Return Willingly to City Held by ISIS,” The Telegraph (Jun. 14, 2014), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10900301/ Iraq-crisis-despite-decapitations-and-deaths-thousands-return-willingly-to-city-held-by-ISIS-terrorists.html.

[10] Research locations included Bashiqa and Bartella (suburbs of Mosul), al-Shirqat in Saladin Province, and Hawija in Kirkuk Province

[11] Interview with “Tamir” (40, butcher) in Mosul (April 2017).

[12] Interview with “Bassem” (45, school administrator) in Mosul (April 2017).

[13] Interview with “Latif” (38, food services) in Mosul (April 2017).

[14] Interview with “Faisal” (48, municipal services) in Mosul (April 2017).

[15] France 24, “Displacement of Mosul’s Christians and Expropriation of their Property,” (Jul. 22, 2014), goo.gl/KodKsd.

[16] Interview with “Fares” (43, municipal services) in Mosul (April 2017).

[17] Interview with “Fatima” (33, teacher) in Mosul (April 2017).

[18] Nazim al-Kakni, “Camps in Iraqi Kurdistan Give Shelter to Displaced People from Mosul,” Al Jazeera

(Jun. 17, 2014), http://www.aljazeera.net/home/print/f6451603-4dff-4ca1-9c10-122741d17432/


[19] Interview with “Dalia” (41, housewife) in Mosul (April 2017).

[20] Interview with “Karim” (35, teacher) in Mosul (April 2017).

[21] Interview with “Khaled” (38, accountant) in Mosul (April 2017).

[22] Interview with “Tarek” (44, municipal services) in Mosul (April 2017).

[23] Interview with “Khaled” (38, accountant) in Mosul (April 2017).

[24] Interview with “Amira” (22, university student) in Mosul (April 2017).

[25] Interview with “Adnan” (35, factory worker) in Mosul (April 2017).

[26] John Beck, “Mosul Residents Enjoy Calmer Lives Under ISIS Control, For Now,” Vice News (Jun. 24, 2014), https://news.vice.com/article/mosul-residents-enjoy-calmer-lives-under-isis-control-for-now.

[27] Interview with “Ahmed” (42, journalist) in Mosul (April 2017).

[28] Tim Arango, “Iraqis Who Fled Mosul Say They Prefer Militants to Government,” New York Times (Jun. 12, 2014), https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/13/world/middleeast/ iraqis-fled-mosul-for-home-after-militant-group-swarmed-the-city.html?_r=0.

[29] Fazil Najib, “Mosul Refugees Going Home as IDPs Reach 1 Million,” Rudaw (Jun. 21, 2014), http://www.rudaw.