Iraq News

ISIL funding tactics mirror gang activities

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

The main market in al-Raqa, which is under the control of the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant', is home to many of the group's illicit activities to secure funding streams. [Photo courtesy of al-Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently]

The main market in al-Raqa, which is under the control of the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant', is home to many of the group's illicit activities to secure funding streams. [Photo courtesy of al-Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently]

The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) is engaging in numerous illicit activities similar to those of international criminal gangs in order to secure funding for its operations, experts told Diyaruna.

The group participates in all forms of robbery, human trafficking, slavery and weapons trading, smuggles stolen materials such as oil and antiquities, sells crops from privately-owned land seized after the rightful owners fled, and imposes various levies on residents under its control.

"All the group’s business and financial activities and all the transactions it conducts are indisputably outside the law," said Cairo University international law professor Mohammed Fathi.

ISIL has "illegally put its hands on the resources of the Syrian state, which ultimately belong to the Syrian people alone", he told Diyaruna.

"Therefore, the extraction, refinement and sale of oil, seizure of agricultural lands and excavation and sale of antiquities are all acts of theft," he said.

Reports suggest that antiquities traders are buzzing with activity after the group adopted the policy of granting search and excavation permits in exchange for 60 percent of the value of the items sold.

A number of UN conventions protect antiquities and ban their trafficking, including the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

These serve to ban "illegal trafficking in antiquities and curb the looting, theft and deliberate transport of [cultural] property outside the borders of the countries of origin", Fathi said.

The UN Security Council can sanction ISIL elements and request that states pursue, arrest and hand them over to the court system, where they may face trial by the International Criminal Court, he added.

Airstrikes target ISIL revenue

"Media reports and military and political statements have recently confirmed that ISIL has lost a large portion of its funding as a result of airstrikes carried out by international coalition warplanes in Syria," said Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah, who resides in Cairo.

In recent months, he told Diyaruna, coalition airstrikes have targeted tanker trucks transporting oil that ISIL was selling on the black market through smugglers.

The strikes also hit oil wells, refineries and primitive oil refineries known as "burners", he said.

As it faces increasing losses, the group has resorted to leasing oil wells and refineries to traders in areas such as al-Raqa and Deir Ezzor, al-Abdullah said, out of fear its elements would be killed by airstrikes.

ISIL is paid in advance for the extracted or refined oil, he explained, pointing out that "the financial crackdown on the group has forced it to look for and exploit any source of funding it can find".

These sources of funding are "more like gang activities", he said, adding that "the group has actually surpassed the largest gangs and international mafias with its trade activities".

ISIL seizes property

Abdulkadir Yahya, an al-Raqa native who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear for his safety, told Diyaruna that ISIL began months ago confiscating the homes, shops and lands of citizens who fled the area.

"Under the pretext that their owners are apostates who live in the countries of infidels, the group is using those properties and real estate at its full discretion," he said.

ISIL converts the properties to housing for its members or leases them on a monthly or annual basis with contracts documented by its "sharia court", he added.

The group has ramped up its confiscation of shops in the main markets, Yahya said, renting them out to traders from between 15,000 ($69.53) and 50,000 Syrian pounds ($231.77) a month.

ISIL also imposes extra monthly taxes on the shops, ranging from 1,500 ($7) to more than 10,000 Syrian pounds ($46.35), depending on the size of the business and its activity, he said.

The group has created another revenue stream by allowing "construction material traders to haul sand from the banks of the Euphrates River," Yahya said.

The sand is sold by leasing out swatches of land on the banks of the river for a period of time to allow the traders to extract the sand, he said, providing the group with a significant cash windfall as there is no other source for sand in the region.

Most of those who are compelled to work with ISIL "are fearful of legal prosecution, as everyone knows that these conditions will not last forever, and the day will come when the law will once again judge actions and deeds", Yahya said.

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