Nearly $50 million a month: According to the AP, that’s what the Islamic State (ISIS) earns in monthly oil revenues. Yet while some analysts say ISIS’s oil earnings are lower, the group raises revenue from other sources as well. Although the United States coalition has waged war on ISIS for more than a year now, the group’s financial stability proves that it remains strong.
Still, as happened last December — before ISIS captured Ramadi, and before the Islamic State metastasized across the planet — an increasing chorus of voices are claiming that the Islamic State has lost its strategic initiative. This is untrue.
Take Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor governorate, which is ISIS-controlled territory that is crucial for the group’s domination of Syria’s Sunni tribes, oil production, and supply lines into Iraq. ISIS expert Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi recently researched ISIS documents related to the governorate’s revenue streams and found that oil and gas account for 27.7 percent of IS revenue; taxes, 23.7 percent; electricity, 3.9 percent; and a massive 44.7 percent comes from “confiscations.” As al-Tamimi notes, these confiscations are highly variable and include traffic fines, asset seizures, and an array of fees. Joined to the ISIS energy industry, these revenues make for a strong financial foundation. Al-Tamimi’s research also tells us where ISIS spends its revenue:19.8 percent goes to base expenditures; 2.8 percent to media operations; 10.4 percent to Islamic policing; 17.7 percent to public services; 5.7 percent to discretionary aid; and 43.6 percent to fighter salaries.
#share#Consider two of these statistics again. Namely, that (at least in Deir ez-Zor) 44.7 percent of ISIS’s revenue comes from confiscations, and 43.6 percent of ISIS’s money pays for fighter salaries. They basically equal each other. This correlation teaches us something important: The Islamic State’s bureaucracy is both a product and a source of its military capability. The bureaucracy would not exist if ISIS had not captured so much territory. In turn, its territorial gains provide an immense revenue stream, thus allowing the group to continue its jihad.
Things are unlikely to change soon. Recapturing major cities such as Ramadi and Mosul continues to be a daunting, complex task for the Iraqi government. Moreover, the success on the ground of the Islamic State only reinforces ISIS’s recruitment propaganda about death and domination for the sake of an “ordained” cause. However perverse, this propaganda has powerful appeal with some young Muslims angered by economic stagnation under the rot of political Islam.
#related#However we measure it, the Islamic State retains a great deal of power. And while we need a new strategy to confront the state (here’s my proposal), we must also accept that ISIS now pursues transnational ambitions — including against the United States. As a consequence, any pretension that the ISIS threat has declined is a grave error. Indeed, if Russia and Iran continue to push Syria toward a battle between Assad and ISIS, ISIS will only grow stronger.
After all, between ISIS and Assad, many Syrian Sunnis will choose ISIS.