The Islamic State, the Caliphate, ISIS — no matter it’s title, it’s a well-established organization able to survive the West’s attempts at de-stabilizing it.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the wealthiest militant group in the world, with a war chest of approximately $2 billion. With the Iraqi Parliament postponing its first session due to a lack of quorum, the group’s presence in Iraq has became a threat to the continued operation of Iraq’s central government.
Of the 328-seat Parliament, for example, 255 members attended the opening sessions, but not enough returned after the break for the session to continue.
With ISIS controlling much of the northern part of the country, including Mosul, Falluja, Tikrit and Ramadi, and with the group in control of several of Iraq’s oil fields and pipelines, the organization has separated from and overshadowed al-Qaida — which has criticized ISIS for its wanton brutality.
More surprising than the group’s sudden emergence and dominance of the Iraqi situation, however, is that it has survived and thrived, despite attempts to delegitimize and counter it.
This look into the underpinnings of ISIS comes from the Harmony Program at the Combating Terrorism Center at the Military Academy at West Point. Since 2005, the program has been analyzing classified documents from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Harmony Database. It was intended to contextualize the inner workings of al-Qaida, its associated organizations and other security threats through the analysis of primary source material. More than 400 of these documents have been declassified and made available for public download.
A preliminary analysis of the documents — obtained by McClatchy D.C. — shows a remarkable ability on the part of ISIS to regather and regroup, even after crippling military defeats. This is partly due to aggressive fundraising tactics, which include stealing more than $420 million from Mosul banks, smuggling oil, opening gas stations in the Kurdish-controlled north, and extorting industrial contractors.
“They continued to raise more and more money over time, even amid the U.S. troop surge and the Sunni Awakening revolt of Iraqi Sunni tribes against the Islamic State, and that’s going to make it difficult for a limited intervention to do more than disrupt ISIS’s pursuit of its objective, which is war to control Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria to establish an Islamic state,” said Patrick Johnston, RAND Corporation expert on military financing.
RAND has put in a request with the Harmony Program for 200 documents specifically addressing al-Qaida’s presence in Iraq, including the evolution of the Islamic State. “If the past is prologue, intervention is likely to degrade ISIS militarily, but the funding is the prerequisite to being able to reconstitute itself as it did after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq.”
The fundraising system that ISIS uses is well-established and rigidly enforced. Local cells are required to pay as much as 20 percent of their income from various schemes, including kidnapping and extortion, to the next level in the pyramid. Senior commanders have extensive records of revenues and revenue flows and move funding around as needed. Databases and spreadsheets — ranging from common expenses to family records for fighters in order to ensure proper death or capture compensation — are meticulously kept and maintained. The ability to effectively track the cash flow has allowed ISIS commanders to funnel money from the secure Mosul to struggling cells in Diyala and Salahuddin.
Additionally, the group’s dedication to caring for the families of fallen fighters — constituting as much as 56 percent of all payouts at times — has resulted in less defection and higher numbers of recruits.
However, the analysis indicates that the average ISIS foot soldier makes $41 per month, far less than most Iraqi blue-collar jobs. A bricklayer, for example, would make $150 per month, on average. This suggests that the majority of ISIS fellowship is attached to the group for ideological reasons, not the presumed “high wages.”
RAND’s analysis contradicts several common assumptions about ISIS, including that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-controlled Middle Eastern nations contributed significantly toward the establishment of ISIS — as has been alleged repeatedly by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Saudi Arabia actually offered less than 5 percent of the group’s operating budget from 2005 to 2009. Recent reporting has indicated that ISIS most likely received funding from Kuwait and Qatar, funneled to ISIS with the help of Turkey.
Additionally, the analysis suggests that ISIS saw through many of the West’s schemes to de-stabilize the group.
One such scheme, the “Sons of Iraq” campaign, or the National Council for the Salvation of Iraq, saw the United States attempt to form a coalition among tribal Sunni sheikhs against the Sunni insurgency in their region. This was universally praised as a victory for counterterrorism efforts that many assumed helped to bring peace to the Anbar province, the home of now-ISIS-controlled Fallujah.
According to the analysis, Islamic State commanders actively sought to woo back the “sons of Iraq” during the height of the campaign, with the overtures toward friendship with the Islamic State and any acceptance of gifts — such as cash and Qurans — being thoroughly recorded. Most of the “sons of Iraq” are now part of ISIS, following the Iraqi government’s refusal to share power with them.
Most importantly, though, the analysis shows how Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who assumed command of ISIS in 2010, turned a rag-tag al-Qaida affiliate into a business whose sole purpose is to create the first caliphate in the Middle East since the 1920s.
Increasingly, the assertion of treating ISIS as an insurgency — as a group of radicals loosely associated toward overthrowing the Iraqi government — is challenged by the realities of an organization concerned with earning potential and returns on investment.