In September, I blogged about the hollow morality of the UK & US refusing to pay hostage ransoms to ISIS because it “rewards” the crime and “puts others lives at risk”. Apart from saving lives, among the key reasons for my view that we should pay these ransom demands in the case of ISIS, in particular, are their hugely lucrative and diverse sources of income which, at the time, were estimated to be delivering US$40m every month on their way to amassing a tidy US$2bn.
The main source of information on ISIS’s income was the group itself and its leadership’s penchant for blowing its own trumpet in order to stimulate (with some success) recruitment interest in the international Muslim community. However, BBC’s This World have been investigating the history and current rate of income generation by ISIS and has had access to a range of expert participants and interested parties, including a former senior ISIS insider.
The documentary paints a grand picture of the panoply of ISIS cash generating activities and also of its breathtaking hypocrisy but it also uncovers the details of how US policy of mass collective extra-judicial incarceration of suspected terrorists and other ‘enemies’ provided both the casus belli and the means for the creation of the terror group.
Original video © BBC
So where does all the Isis cash, money that has enabled a relatively small group of militants to defeat and push back some of the world’s biggest and best-equipped armies, come from? Well, from taxes, like any state, though reluctance or failure to pay results in a firmer response – hand grenades through the letterbox, not just reminders from the Inland Revenue. More like extortion than taxation then. Then there’s bank robbery – half a billion dollars from the vaults in Mosul alone, reportedly. And ransom money, not from the US and UK, of course, but other countries that are – depending on how you see it – less resolute/more carefree with the lives of their citizens.
That’s not all, and now it gets more surprising. Isis’s most lucrative source of income is oil. Perhaps that’s not totally surprising given the location, but how do they get it out, when they’re surrounded by enemies? It’s smuggled out, pumped secretly underground, floated in barrels down rivers; the borders of the self-declared caliphate are not impervious to oil. One customer may surprise though: the Assad regime. In fact, according to a dude from the US Treasury, there’s trade in both directions, with electricity going the other way. What? That’s the nuttiest thing ever, adversaries in war, not just trading but trading stuff that will help each other’s war effort? Why not arm each other too, while they’re at it?
Why doesn’t the US-led coalition simply bomb Isis’s oil industry, from the air? It does try, but it’s not easy, as there are now thousands of primitive refineries turning crude into fuel a few gallons at a time. A cottage oil industry basically, all over the place, and therefore virtually impossible to strike from the air. Very unsound environmentally, too. Oi, Isis, haven’t you heard: #keepitintheground.
One more: priceless relics plundered from the area’s world heritage sites. Publicly they’re smashing them up, obliterating the legacy of ancient civilisations, eradicating an age of ignorance before the Prophet. Ignorantly, ironically. But with further irony – and brazen hypocrisy – they’re also selling some of it off on the sly: looted jewellery, coins, cuneiform tablets, entire mosaics and wall paintings. The Taliban definitely missed a trick with those big Buddhas, they would have made a fortune on eBay, maybe kept them in power a while longer.
Oh, and there’s plenty more irony about – not least in the fact that the US is partly responsible for the creation of Isis, the seeds of which were sown within an extremely fertile environment for growing radical ideology: a US detention centre. There was actually military training going on, under the noses of American soldiers.
Now it is in control of a large part of the area, and spreading fear much further afield. And to the religious fanaticism, the extreme violence, the techy expertise, we now have to add business acumen. If it can do all that in a couple of years, what next? Financial services? Mortgages? Isis Isas?
Even if the rise is resisted and it is defeated, on that frontline, from the air, in the markets, something else will pop up. It is easier to destroy even thousands of makeshift oil refineries than it is to destroy ideology.
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