ISIS's financial resources and its monetary policy

(To Nicolò Giordana)

Today one of the main themes that the intelligence and those who want to counter the spreading phenomenon of Islamic terrorism must face regards to the way in which one of its main expressions, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has accumulated the wealth that made him the most wealthy terrorist group in the world.

Breaking these funding constraints means "closing the taps" and eradicating weapons and followers.

The success or failure of the States, which today are at war with the fundamentalists, to stop the disbursement of funds lies in understanding how and to what extent to penalize the foreign subjects with which ISIS or its intermediaries do business, and this is only possible with the close cooperation with the local forces of those territories that are gradually being swallowed up by the new Caliphate, working with these institutions to block the mechanisms by which ISIS procures the money.

Restricting the ISIS financial system is a very difficult mission and even if a success is envisaged in this sense we can not think that the group's activities would be definitively terminated, history in fact teaches us that even when the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was at the minimum of its power has however been able to maintain a core of affiliates and with these conduct operations.

The financial resources of ISIS

The first question we need to ask ourselves is where ISIS takes the money. From the historical examination of the similar activities developed by AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) conducted through the documentation acquired by the peacekeeping forces and by the Iraqi ones between the 2005 and the 2010, it can be deduced how ISIS and its precursors have provided to generate their financing internally.

Today, the majority of proceeds come from the smuggling of oil, the sale of derivative products (of oil nature) of the Iraqi and Syrian regions, from the extortion and undue taxation of local economies of the areas subject to its control, as well as from the sale of ancient artifacts resulting from raids and the sale to the black market of stolen goods, the result of "war booty".

A turning point in this economic policy is represented by 2008: the leader of the movement becomes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and, while previously the livelihoods were solely sought internally, the funding also comes from external donors (1). To date many scholars think that this slice of extra-ISIS "employers" is in continuous development and that one day it will represent the fundamental contribution, especially thinking that it will be unthinkable to squeeze further, and therefore excessively, the territories conquered in Syria and Iraq. If then the relations between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), which were severed in order to allow JaN to become an independent affiliate of al-Qaeda based in Pakistan, were to mend, the original network would have a significant new financial contribution. .

To date, therefore, being the major part of internal financing, it is necessary that the greatest efforts are aimed at combating these financial operations while not neglecting the external contributions and hitting the donors with heavy penalties.

The growth of wealth of ISIS

The significant difference between the economic-financial activities of ISIS and those of its predecessors is that the latest in the new organization are more of scale than of gender. Recent estimates indicate a daily profit for ISIS ranging from 1.000.000 $ to 3.000.000 $. Records found during searches during peacekeeping operations have shown that, between the 2008 and the 2009, the Islamic State of Iraq has produced an average monthly income of just under 1.000.000 $. Of course today it is not clear what the contribution of that region, economically speaking, is to ISIS, the fact is that what was previously a monthly income is now multiplied and has become a daily product. Surely these resources have contributed to the territorial expansion conducted by the terrorist group between Iraq and Syria.

From the well-known registers it can be deduced how the money produced has almost immediately been largely spent in the costs of managing the banquet: salaries to affiliates, legal expenses incurred on behalf of its members held, and costs incurred to carry out military operations. If the reports that American intelligence came into possession during an ISIS executive capture in June 2014 are true, to date the surplus of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is around 2 billion, thus enjoying an enormous amount of capital and not having to take care of any budget balance.

How the Islamic State spends its money

After quoting this abundant wealth, the first question we can reasonably ask is how ISIS can spend its money. First of all, one of the possible exit routes could reasonably be aimed at continuing the expansion of its territorial base in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Secondly, the money could be used to increase its influence in other Muslim regions like Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus attempting to outclass the jihadist primacy of al-Qaeda. Third way could lead to the material financing of terrorist attacks in North America, Europe or other parts of the world. The last possibility, an almost obligatory road, is to reserve a part of commissions to its own affiliates and provide services aimed at maintaining order in the territory it controls.

Of all these possible options, the first and the last seem, to date, the most accredited: the priority illustrated by the Islamic State itself is to build a caliphate from Iraq and the Levant, this is the reason that leads us to believe more reliable as ISIS is mainly focused on the control of the conquered territory and to establish a valid leadership in the region based on its rigid Salafist-Jihadist governance structures based on Sharia.

The second spending hypothesis mentioned above is supported by the numerous reports that have shown how several ISIS affiliates have made trips to Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries to try to recruit militants. To date, numerous groups have sworn allegiance to ISIS: several Taliban commanders residing in Pakistan, the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines (al-Harakat al-Islamiyya), the splinter group led by former Jemaah Islamiyah leader in Indonesia, and that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai. Some of these jihadists, such as those residing in the Philippines, have intensified their anti-Western operations, such as the abduction of "infidel dogs", in the last few months thus being able to support the ruling cause.

The path that would like the use of its resources aimed at terrorist actions in the West would also be viable as an act of force could attract new foreign jihadists who fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A massive attack would be so expensive but, in all probability, to date sustainable, that's why action is needed towards the interruption to the various loans to the safe of the Islamic State. Such an action would not prevent any attack, but it would certainly reduce the scope of these, reducing possible research and development actions in weapons and materials, as well as the economic capacity to allow members to be long engaged in actual operations or business activities. training.

How to cut ISIS oil and extortion sources

The current main sources of financing are represented by clandestine oil sales, extortion and related criminal activities.

The main point, as far as oil is concerned, is to investigate and find out who trades the stolen oil from ISIS in order to then be able to sanction it with heavy penalties. It is true that the product that moves in illegal networks is largely out of the formal economy but, at a certain moment, when it is purchased by a subject operating in the legal economy, it enters the financial system and becomes traceable: the buyer in fact it will have a bank account, insured means of transport and facilities that need licenses for their business. Intermediaries are compliant with these illegal financing activities for terrorists, be they traders, refiners or transport companies, to be identified and stopped. We must cut them off from the economic systems and confiscate their assets also by hitting the banks that contain their money or that process their transactions. For these activities, especially for those of smuggling of smuggling, a strong collaboration is needed with the Kurdish and Iraqi authorities for what they consider their territories. The intelligence services have worked to this end, receiving information on smuggling oil sales in the markets of Turkey and Kurdistan but the work is still uphill also due to the complacency of some rulers of these territories. These operations are very complex and often the real identity of the smugglers are shielded by the banks that manage, knowingly or unknowingly, this business with the oil smugglers coming from Iraq and Syria.

Concerning the proceeds of extortion activities, they have long been one of the liveliest sources of income for this organization. An example is provided by the documents seized from the terrorists where it appears as in 2009, in Mosul, the quantum produced by these activities was equal to the proceeds deriving from the oil trade. In order to combat this source, it is necessary to exercise control over the territory in which ISIS operates, on local businesses and on the population, an operation that must be entrusted to the local peacekeeping coalition soldiers who must aim at eliminating the intimidation force of the paramilitary groups of the Islamic State. Therefore, the work must be carried out in collaboration with the Arab, Iraqi and Kurdish authorities and must aim to monitor the flow of goods in key territories to determine the flow of ISIS funding.


Surely, today the ISIS network is equipped with professionals who control the trafficking and the accounts of the terrorist group. Identifying such subjects and punishing them with exemplary penalties is absolutely preliminary to dismantle the organization's self-financing work.

Because of the design shown up to now, I consider it essential to continue to conduct air strikes against activities that are financially profitable for them: air raids have, to date, done a great job in doing so by interrupting the flow of income and gaining time for thorough intelligence and diplomacy activities to weaken ISIS. The point is to determine whether it is convenient to destroy those assets that the legitimate governments that hold the territories occupied by the terrorists will have to return to their possession.

It is then necessary to strengthen the capacity for collecting financial information and analyzing it in order to obtain a clearer picture of the financial networks of the Islamic State. To do this, we need to develop a solid partnership with local governments and with the coalitioned states in the fight against terrorism, strengthening intelligence cooperation with the Kurds and the Iraqis to identify the oil smugglers and monitoring the sales prices of the latter. .

Finally, the military permanence in Iraqi territory, aimed at increasing Iraq's own security force, is to be considered valid. The fight against terrorism financing is inextricably linked to the presence of peacekeeping in the Middle East: ISIS, to accumulate its wealth, is exploiting the weakness of the Iraqi government - established after a twenty-four-year dictatorship and today undergoing typical arrests. internal political issues - and the current instability of Syria caused by the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The cut to the ISIS 'finances cannot therefore be fulfilled if all the states involved, western and moderate Islamists, do not want to dismiss this radical terrorist current as the author of a bad Koranic interpretation as well as the innumerable disasters that the contemporary world is suffering.


(1) In this sense, the anonymous author of the document to date has been expressed, along with the many others to whom this text will refer, in the online databases of the Combating Terrorism Center of the Military Academy of West Point. Here the author warns against external funding because the financial agreements that would be at their base are considered by this to be vulnerable.