To what do the most powerful terror networks in the world owe their success? Every faction, group or organization has their mission statement and charismatic leaders at the top who are meant to embody and promote the organization’s purpose and encourage lower ranking soldiers and supporters to continue working for the cause. While instilling a strong, unwavering, and savage ideology is required to purposefully lead young men, women and children to their deaths and the most violent and horrific scenes imaginable, for many terrorist organizations, executing this plan requires a great deal of wealth. Money gives individuals and groups the resources needed to grow, thrive and multiply in power and influence. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is the wealthiest terror network in history with an estimated net worth nearing $3 billion (€2.6 billion and £2.1 billion). This organization has sought out and largely fought for resources to acquire financial gains and secure territory, and by large measure has been frightening successful.
While the world stays stead-focused on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the flow of refugees spilling into Europe and throughout the world, the actual source of the terror network’s wealth that allows them to critically impact millions of lives and territory remains suspiciously removed from the mainstream media. Their wealth is rooted in the oil industry, weapons trade, ransoms, extortion, theft and donations from individuals and organizations that sympathize with their cause, just to name a few. This organization resorts to engaging in barbaric crimes, exploitation and manipulation to satisfy their financing efforts and cementing a more stable network throughout the region and beyond. Large funds are essential in order to help the organization gain ground, obtain the necessary weapons to do so, and establish a more effective and conniving social media presence. Social media has proven to be one of their more effective recruitment tools, most notably pointing to the organization’s ability to grab headlines around the world with highly graphic, violent and gory cinematography, giving the caliphate exposure and a direct link to a recruitment pool of potentially disenfranchised and aggrieved sympathizers from all around the world.
The oil industry is by far their most significant source of cash and tangible assets, which in the past few months have been the targets of US-led airstrikes throughout Syria. The organization makes roughly 1-2 million dollars every day rooted from oil sales. ISIS occupies and controls numerous fields throughout Iraq and Syria that are meant to produce large amounts of crude oil, on which the organization relies heavily to support their financing efforts. ISIS inherited many Iraqi soldiers left behind after the fall of Saddam Hussein, as well the leftover oil refineries, with the hopes of capitalizing on them. The economic incentives to smuggle oil and market the price on their own terms give the terror network a logistical advantage. ISIS has also made great use of foreign hostages and demanded large sums of money in exchange for a foreign national’s safe return home. Governments, private companies and families from all over the world have attempted to engage with ISIS to carry out the exchange. Countries like the United States sternly condemn this practice, as the American leadership views ransom exchanges as setting a dangerous precedent. While the financial strategies that the group is using to fund their radical campaign are nowhere close to being novel or innovative, as other groups like Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram have also adopted these strategies, somehow ISIS has managed to execute this strategy forcefully and tactfully. The US and many of its allies are beginning to discover that it will take much more than airstrikes, target bombings, raids and arming the Kurds to drive out the Islamic State and dismantle the organization. ISIS’ network and resources are far-reaching. They will need to hit them where it really hurts – their wallets.