Three Ways ISIS Gets Its Money

In this Monday, June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul.

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In this Monday, June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul.

“It seems to me … that terrorist groups will do anything for money.”

Kid­nap­pings, an­tiquit­ies traf­fick­ing, and private dona­tions.

Those are three—though cer­tainly not the only three—of the ways that the Is­lam­ic State, or “IS­IS,” the ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion re­spons­ible for the at­tacks in Par­is, funds its vi­ol­ent op­er­a­tion.

While much of its fund­ing comes from oil sales, the group has also re­sor­ted to cap­tur­ing in­di­vidu­als in an at­tempt to ex­tract pay­ment for their safe re­turn. The group has kid­napped Amer­ic­ans and oth­ers, and in cases when pay­ment was not made, grue­somely murdered them and re­leased the videos on the In­ter­net.

IS­IS has kid­napped “multi-hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of vic­tims,” John Cas­sara, a former spe­cial agent for the U.S. Treas­ury De­part­ment, told law­makers on a House For­eign Af­fairs pan­el Tues­day. The group has used kid­nap­pings to raise around $45 mil­lion in 2014, he noted, cit­ing a Fin­an­cial Ac­tion Task Force re­port.

“In fact, be­cause kid­nap­ping and as­so­ci­ated crime, such as ex­tor­tion, has been so suc­cess­ful, it ap­pears the av­er­age ransom pay­ment is in­creas­ing,” he ad­ded, de­scrib­ing a “vi­cious cycle” in which pay­ing ransoms leads to more kid­nap­pings, with those kid­nap­pings in turn lead­ing to more ransoms.

IS­IS ac­tu­ally makes more money off of oil sales,” test­i­fied Dr. Dav­id An­drew Wein­berg, a seni­or fel­low at the Found­a­tion for De­fense of Demo­cra­cies, “but ransoms have helped it and al-Qaeda con­quer that ter­rit­ory in the first place.”

The dis­cus­sion of host­ages, however, led law­makers in­to a wrench­ing top­ic: wheth­er it is wise for the United States to pay ransoms for kid­napped cit­izens.

Among the wit­nesses testi­fy­ing be­fore the sub­com­mit­tee was Di­ane Fo­ley, moth­er of James Fo­ley—an Amer­ic­an journ­al­ist be­headed by the Is­lam­ic State in 2014—and the founder of the James W. Fo­ley Leg­acy Found­a­tion. “Our son James was tor­tured and starved by IS­IS for nearly two years, just for be­ing an Amer­ic­an,” Fo­ley test­i­fied. “Our fam­ily’s or­deal was made worse by our in­co­her­ent and of­ten in­ef­fect­ive host­age policy.”

The tra­di­tion­al ar­gu­ment against pay­ing for host­ages’ safety is that it will en­cour­age fur­ther kid­nap­pings down the line, but Di­ane Fo­ley cast doubts on that line of thought. “I am told our strict ad­her­ence to this policy saves lives by de­creas­ing the rate of cap­ture of Amer­ic­ans, but no one has been able to show me the re­search be­hind our host­age policy,” Fo­ley test­i­fied.

Fo­ley sug­ges­ted that the gov­ern­ment com­mu­nic­ate with captors go­ing for­ward: “What if we had been shrewd enough to en­gage with Jim’s Syr­i­an captors in the fall of 2013, to learn all we could about them, in­stead of ig­nor­ing them?”

Fo­ley’s pres­ence did not de­ter one law­maker from speak­ing out against ransoms.

“With Mrs. Fo­ley here, I feel bad say­ing it—but I don’t think that we should be al­low­ing pay­ing money and ransoms to ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions,” said Rep. Brad Sher­man, a Demo­crat from Cali­for­nia. “From an emo­tion­al stand­point, it may get you the par­tic­u­lar loved one back, but it’s just awhile be­fore they kill some oth­er Amer­ic­ans or seize some oth­er Amer­ic­an host­ages.”

Selling His­tory to Fund­ing Vi­ol­ence

The group also works to sell ar­ti­facts and oth­er cul­tur­al items on the black mar­ket. The ter­rit­ory cur­rently con­trolled by IS­IS con­tains ar­ti­facts from an­cient Meso­pot­amia, one of hu­man­kind’s earli­est large-scale or­gan­ized so­ci­et­ies.

Now, ex­perts fear that past is dis­ap­pear­ing. Dr. Mi­chael D. Danti of the Amer­ic­an Schools of Ori­ent­al Re­search said the Syr­i­an con­flict has brought about “the worst cul­tur­al-her­it­age crisis since World War II.”

“Over the last 16 months, IS­IS has de­veloped a highly or­gan­ized ap­proach to loot­ing, traf­fick­ing, and selling an­tiquit­ies and oth­er cul­tur­al prop­erty for fund­ing,” said Dr. Danti. “To IS­IS, an­tiquit­ies are nat­ur­al re­source to be mined from the ground or pilfered from cul­tur­al re­pos­it­or­ies.”

The ac­tu­al dol­lar value of the an­tiquit­ies con­trolled by IS­IS is un­known, Dr. Danti said, but the group finds the rev­en­ue source “cru­cial” to their op­er­a­tions. He pushed for the United States to pri­or­it­ize “re­du­cing glob­al mar­ket space for con­flict an­tiquit­ies.”

Frayed Loy­al­ties

An­oth­er source of rev­en­ue for ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions are private dona­tions from in­di­vidu­als in oth­er coun­tries. Dr. Wein­berg lis­ted four U.S. al­lies that “pur­sue prob­lem­at­ic or even ad­versari­al po­s­i­tions” over private dona­tions to ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions: Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Ar­a­bia, and Tur­key.

“Des­pite prom­ises to do so, they have failed to ef­fect­ively ob­struct the flow of such funds and to try pun­ish­ing its prac­ti­tion­ers,” he ar­gued, say­ing his writ­ten testi­mony—avail­able on the sub­com­mit­tee’s web­site—in­cludes “dozens of ex­amples of such neg­li­gence.”

Dr. Wein­berg went on to ar­gue that “the U.S. should de­vel­op a broad range of op­tions for when our al­lies re­fuse to do the right thing versus ter­ror fin­an­ci­ers.”  

At the end of the wit­nesses’ testi­mon­ies, Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Ted Poe com­men­ted, “It seems to me—and I may not have all of their sources of rev­en­ue—but we’ve heard that ter­ror­ist groups will do any­thing for money.”

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