Aid and the Islamic State

Eva Svoboda, Louise Redvers


This crisis brief examines the flows of international aid into parts of Iraq controlled by militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Key findings:

  • The group calling itself Islamic State (IS) has been present in Iraq in various incarnations for a decade or more. It made its first territorial claim in Iraq in early January 2014, seizing parts of the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, from which government security forces had withdrawn following clashes with local leaders over the shutting down of pro-Sunni protest camps.
  • The conflict is multifaceted and rooted in complex geopolitical developments dating back decades, making understanding the dynamics among the many actors involved extremely difficult.
  • Despite mounting humanitarian needs in Iraq, access for international aid agencies is extremely limited.
  • Despite the perception that IS areas are no-go zones for assistance, some international aid is getting through and UN agencies and other international organisations are working with local counterparts to deliver humanitarian support to displaced Iraqi families and Syrian refugees.
  • Residents and officials living in IS-controlled areas report seeing very little international aid. This may be because logos are being removed by donors, and because IS representatives are directly involved in – or claiming credit for – aid distributions.
  • Experience from Afghanistan and Somalia shows the importance of engaging early with armed non-state actors. Such engagement has a better chance of succeeding when aid agencies have a clear strategy and coordinated policies, underpinned by frank and honest discussions with donors on the potential negative effects of counter-terrorism legislation.
  • Engagement with IS is critical to efforts to reach populations in need, though it will only be possible if conditions improve and there is greater clarity around the legal and reputational risks.
  • Recommendations:

    • Recent HPG research on engaging with Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Taliban in Afghanistan may hold important lessons for agencies grappling with the practical, legal and ethical difficulties associated with access negotiations in Iraq.
    • Discussions on negotiating with armed groups are rare among aid agencies and experience is seldom shared. While there are good reasons for this greater transparency about the risks and compromises of engagement with armed groups is needed.
    • Aid agencies should continue open dialogue with donors on counter-terrorism measures and their implications for humanitarian work.


Svoboda E. and Redvers L. (2014). Aid and the Islamic State. (IRIN/HPG Crisis Brief). London: ODI / IRIN News