'ISIS Files' Shed Light on Inner Workings of Terror Group

The documents recovered in Iraq provide insight on the terror groups’ operations in Iraq.

July 02, 2020

The George Washington University launched its ISIS Files repository, the first batch of the 15,000 digitized pages from the documents collected in Iraq by New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi. The previously unpublished documents shed light on the inner workings of ISIS at the height of its influence.

GW’s Program on Extremism formed a partnership with The New York Times in 2018 to make these documents available to the public. The first collections of documents, released by GW on June 29, focus on ISIS ideology, real estate and taxation. 

“This has been a massive endeavor, and every team member has contributed,” said Lorenzo Vidino, Program on Extremism director, during a virtual event to mark the launch.

The Program on Extremism worked with The Times and GW’s Libraries and Academic Innovation division to digitize, translate and analyze the documents. They then were posted on a new website in their original form, accompanied by English translations. The website also includes an introduction and three reports that analyze and contextualize the documents on a specific topic, written by experts on extremism.

GW will release future batches of documents in the coming months. Each batch will be accompanied by expert analysis.

The Times delivered the original documents to the Iraqi government through its embassy in Washington after the files were digitized.

Ms. Callimachi started reporting on terrorism in 2013. Like many reporters, she said she relied on sources at the Pentagon, State Department and in Western embassies in the region to cover the terrorism beat. Based on those sources, she wrote articles and created a worldview about an al-Qaeda group in Mali that she later learned was “almost entirely inaccurate” as a result of the documents she discovered on the ground.

In December 2016, Ms. Callimachi began seeking out these types of documents as she entered parts of Iraq that had been recently liberated from ISIS control. These papers include strategy documents, internal memos, letters between commanders and diaries of ISIS fighters. When she returned to the United States, she sought out an academic partner to ensure the documents were preserved and available to all.

The resulting public repository serves as a record of genocide and helps to better understand one of most dangerous terrorist organizations in decades. It also provides a sense of how such an entity runs a state and can inform future policies to prevent the rise of the next Islamic State type of group.

“These records are primary sources that give a lens into what the group thinks about itself,” Ms. Callimachi said. 

During the virtual launch event, an Iraqi diplomat raised concerns about potential retaliation against individuals named in the documents if they were able to be identified. The project team clarified that all personal information that could be used to identify individuals was redacted from the public files. The team spent 18 months planning, researching and consulting with experts to craft an ethical foundation for this effort. GW Libraries and Academic Innovation received support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for this endeavor. 

Geneva Henry, GW’s dean of Libraries and Academic Innovation, said that ensuring all materials are published in an ethical way has been a priority from the start. 

“We bear a responsibility to make sure that what is provided does not harm innocent individuals,” Dr. Henry said. “Context is very important in how we work together globally in preserving human knowledge and preserving these archives.”

Three analytical reports were published for ISIS Files’ initial launch.

Devorah Margolin and Haroro Ingram, Program on Extremism senior research fellows, published a paper titled “Inside the Islamic State in Mosul: A Snapshot of the Logic & Banality of Evil.” Cole Bunzel, Hoover Institution fellow and Program on Extremism fellow, published “The Islamic State's Ideology: History of a Rift.” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi published “The Islamic State's Real Estate Department: Documents and Analysis.”

Learning & Research


‘ISIS Files’ Offer a New View into the Terrorist Organization

November 15, 2019

Program on Extremism experts discussed how internal documents left behind by the Islamic State in Iraq shape our understanding of ISIS ahead of March public release.

GW Program on Extremism, The New York Times Announce ‘ISIS Files’ Research Partnership

September 10, 2018

GW researchers will create a virtual public archive of the documents retrieved in Iraq by a team of Times reporters.