The extremist militants battling government forces in Iraq know it takes more than guns and ammunition to carve out their Islamic state.
As violence escalates outside Iraq’s largest northern oil refinery in Baiji, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) are trying to add to the oil fields and facilities the group controls in Syria and are also eyeing factories and power plants.
With assets and territory, ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has financial strength that Al-Qaeda never managed to have under Osama bin Laden, who relied mainly on supporters living in the Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
“ISIS is not out in the economic boondocks of Afghanistan or hidden in deserts and caves,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said by email. “ISIS is developing in a vital oil, gas and trade area of the world. It can grab as it expands.”
Al-Qaeda fought and lost to U.S. forces in Iraqi towns ISIS now controls, including the city of Mosul, while an Al-Qaeda offshoot has set up a stronghold in the southern mountains of Yemen after Saudi security cracked down on them in 2004. By holding key territory, ISIS may be able to dodge global efforts to halt the flow of money to terrorists.
The Haditha Dam in northwestern Iraq on the Euphrates River and sections of the 600,000 barrel-a-day pipeline running to Turkey, which hasn’t operated since March, are targets of ISIS, said Hasan Hasan, an analyst with Delma Institute, an Abu Dhabi-based research center.
The North Fertilizer Plant in Baiji, which Houston-based KBR Inc. won a contract to revamp in 2011, could also fall under their control, as could cement plants in the north, Hasan said.
ISIS tries to control “any lucrative resources from oil fields, gas plants, paper factories,” he said.
The militants fought other rebel groups, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, for control of the oil and gas fields in Syria, according to Amir al-Dandal, a son of the representative of Al-Bukamal tribes in the country’s east.
“ISIS is the most organized in terms of controlling wells and selling to traders,” Dandal, 33, who now lives in Qatar and has close contact with family members there, said by telephone. “It’s a war for money, and oil is key.”
As it cements its northern power base, ISIS faces economic challenges that require money, according to Charles Ries, a vice president at research company Rand Corp. in Washington. The group controls areas in Syria and Iraq with a similar land mass to Wyoming, he said, larger than the U.K.
The three Iraqi provinces received about $1 billion a month in total from the central government, Ries said.
“It’s hard for me to see how ISIS would be able to feed, clothe and provide social services for this population of 8 million people given the fact there aren’t many resources,” Ries said. “How will the Sunni extremists, who are presently in control, be able to maintain the economic situation for the population now under their control?”
The group has used extortion, kidnapping and smuggling to raise money and intimidate the Sunni population under its control, Fabrice Balanche, a lecturer and director of a Middle East group at the University of Lyon 2 in France.
“ISIS has its own funding linked to levies it imposes in the territories it controls,” he said by telephone.
“We know that for more than a year, merchants in Mosul have been paying a ‘revolutionary tax.’ It also sells black market oil and gets ransoms from kidnappings. But that’s not enough to maintain its men and buy arms.”
ISIS may be taking in several million dollars a month, according to a U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke during a telephone briefing on June 24 and declined to use his name because of security concerns. The group also probably seized more cash from banks, the officer said.
In Mosul, ISIS fighters stripped guards of their weapons at a central bank branch and stole the “little money” the bank had when they took the city earlier this month, Walid Eedi, director general of statistics at Iraqi central bank, said this month. Gunmen stole about $1 million, he said.
The group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen also uses similar tactics, according Saeed Obaid al-Jemhi, who is based in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and is the author of a book on Al-Qaeda in the country.
When militants attacked Seyoun in the southeast province of Hadramaut, they looted the National Bank, the Agricultural Bank and the International Bank of Yemen, he said.
Bank managers described militants unsuccessfully shooting rocket-propelled grenades as they tried to open safes in the banks, according to Jemhi. “Financing is more important than weapons and explosives,” he said. “Without money, it would be crippled.”
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have made it difficult for their citizens to provide funds to Islamic causes abroad without government approval.
During the war in Afghanistan, Saudi supporters could donate money directly at their mosque with no government supervision.
Halting terrorism financing from the Gulf area remains difficult, and “even small amounts of money that get through have a very substantial impact,” United States Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in Jeddah on June 17.
In Yemen and Syria, the cost of keeping a fighter in the field is estimated to range between $10 to $50 a day, according to Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“Terrorist labor expenses are low,” he said.
“Fighters with ISIS and in Yemen aren’t in it for the money. They have a cause, and religious fervor. Plus, the ability to garner battlefield experience is invaluable.”