Defeating the Islamic State: A Financial-Military Strategy

By Kan, Paul Rexton | Parameters, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Defeating the Islamic State: A Financial-Military Strategy


Kan, Paul Rexton, Parameters


ABSTRACT: Through oil smuggling, kidnapping, human trafficking and extortion, ISIL is one the best funded militant groups the United States has confronted. Avoiding a protracted conflict with ISIS requires a more integrated financial and military strategy to undermine the group's territorial control and reach.

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Overshadowed by the debate over whether the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) constitutes a state, Islamic or otherwise, and the discussion of the strategy to "degrade and destroy" is the pivotal role criminality plays in its rise to power. ISIL includes criminals in its ranks and participates in a range of criminal activities to maintain and expand its territory. ISIL's ranks are swollen with criminals released by Syrian President Bashar Assad; its membership includes Sunni ex-convicts freed from prisons when ISIL captured Iraqi towns and cities. (1) In addition, ISIL participates in a number of criminal activities to generate illicit profit. Rather than relying solely on support from wealthy donors in Gulf countries, ISIL generates the bulk of its money from criminal activities such as extortion, robbery, kidnapping, trafficking and smuggling. (2) According to one report, it netted $8 million in extortion rackets even prior to the group's capture of Mosul. (3) Meanwhile, the group generated between $1 million to $2 million per day in profit from the oil fields it captured. (4) With the massing of such wealth, the US Treasury Department believes, but for "the important exception of some state-sponsored terrorist organizations, ISIL is probably the best-funded terrorist organization we have confronted." (5)

By relying on criminal enterprises, ISIL has made itself into a highly adaptable and resilient organization not easily swept from the battlefield. By perpetrating criminal acts, ISIL easily earns money for weapons, training, and recruitment and does not depend on significant sponsorship by an external state. It is not reliant on moving illicit money across international borders through established financial institutions, thus insulating itself from many traditional financial countermeasures such as economic sanctions, asset seizures, and clamping down on sympathetic charities. Such insulation means ISIL can use illicit schemes to fund its current operations and potentially extend its fight into other regions. (6) Due to the significant role that crime plays in ISIL's power, the Unites States requires a more integrated financial and military strategy to undermine the group's territorial control and reach.

ISIL and Crime Management

Like other insurgent and terrorist organizations, ISIL has had to determine its relationship to crime in the territory it controls. Crime management is essential to remain both a viable fighting force and a plausible alternative authority structure. Other insurgent groups such as the FARC, Sendero Luminoso, the Taliban and the United Wa State Army that have gained territory have managed their relationship with crime through a mixture of confrontation, cooptation and cooperation. ISIL is proving no different.

In its expansion, ISIL has followed a number of steps to confront criminality in the territory it has acquired. First, it removed the local police force and judiciary by killing some of them while forcing any remaining Sunni to swear obedience to the group. Second, ISIL announced the harshest form of sharia law is the enshrined code of conduct. After the completion of these steps, ISIL's final move has been to demonstrate its authority by having the newly vetted police and courts mete out lashings, amputations and executions depending on the severity of the crime.'

Other militant groups like the IRA and the FLN have sought to confront crime by assassinating police and establishing underground legal codes in areas where they operated, while other groups like the FARC and the Taliban have sought to impose new institutional frameworks for law enforcement and judiciary directly. …

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