Earlier this summer, the world took notice of the growing threat of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as the terrorist organization gained territory throughout both countries. At first, with a strong response from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and armed forces, the threat seemed to be contained. Now, months later, weeks after al-Maliki’s resignation following political pressure, and only days after ISIS’s third execution of a Westerner, the organization has stormed the international community and continues to expand. What started as a limited response from the U.S. and other countries has turned into an outright declaration of war, beginning with airstrikes on ISIS targets, as President Obama announced days ago. Despite the horrifying radicalism and violence of the group, which has led to the disassociation by al-Qaeda due to the unprecedented brutality and instability of ISIS, the most disturbing aspect of this extremist organization may be its money.
With a variety of criminal activity and generous donations, ISIS has established unprecedented cash reserves for a group of its kind. Estimated to be worth approximately $2 billion, ISIS has become by far the richest terrorist organization of all time. This financing has come from protection rackets, car-jackings, donations, stolen goods sold on the black market, kidnappings and ransoms, human trafficking of sex slaves, and most prominently selling oil from captured refineries. Ken Dilanian of Business Insider and other experts recently estimated that ISIS is now generating revenue upwards of $3 million per day. ISIS has not only conquered vast regions in northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, but has also turned this occupied land into revenue-generating territory. The group has robbed banks in these areas for hundreds of millions of dollars, and has levied “taxes” through intimidation of the locals. After capturing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this summer, ISIS seized over $466 million from the central bank, according to a report by Josh Elliot of CTVNews.
Yet with all this activity, ISIS’s main moneymaker remains the black market for oil, as Elliot estimated ISIS receives as much as $1 million per day in petro-profits alone. The main asset for ISIS is its current control of over 11 oil fields in Syria and Iraq. At first, ISIS was thought to be only a minor inconvenience to the global petro-economy, but now attention has shifted to the fact that ISIS has not only disturbed oil exports, but is now self-operating the fields for huge profits. In an interview with CNN, Luay al-Khatteeb, the energy and economic advisor to the federal parliament of Iraq, explained the method by which ISIS is earning its oil profits. As he describes, ISIS is taking the crude oil from the captured refineries and trafficking it into Iran, Jordan, and Turkey through ISIS-controlled smuggling routes. There, the oil is sold on the black market at a discounted price. For example, a $100 barrel can be sold for anywhere between $25 and $75. Even at such discounts, ISIS brings in nearly a million dollars per day, financing much of the group’s operations.
With control and operation of these oil fields and smuggling routes, along with the other mentioned tactics, ISIS has become a multibillion-dollar organization and truly an economic powerhouse. The organization has successfully united the mechanisms of terrorism and organized crime. Simply put, ISIS has become the Arabian Mafia. Operating like both the richest mob and the most extreme terrorist organization, ISIS is truly a new breed of bad. And as long as its lucrative schemes continue and its net worth rises, ISIS will remain a dangerous global force. As the U.S. and other allied countries discuss and prepare for military intervention in Iraq and Syria, a main priority must be to cut off the money supply and interfere with as many cash channels as possible. With thousands of soldiers, vast territories of land, and billions of dollars in revenue, ISIS has graduated from our conception of a standard terrorist organization and become a full-fledged, state-sponsored military. There has been growing global concern over the wealth of this radical group, but it is yet to be seen whether or not international leaders will make this a priority in the escalating war in Iraq and Syria. However, as many agree, regardless of the violent tactics and religious extremism, the money alone is enough to fear.