Financing the Islamic State requires conspiracy and complicity

The rise to power and prominence of the Islamic State (IS) – formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – has taken governments and political observers by surprise. But who is investigating where the money is coming from?

The Islamic State is an extremist group that follows the hard-line ideology of Al Qaeda and adheres to global jihadist principles. IS stands for an extreme anti-Western interpretation of Islam, promotes religious violence, and labels those who do not agree with it infidels and apostates. It is trying to create a “back to basics” Islamist state in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the region.

IS is being acknowledged as one of the most powerful jihadist movements in modern history. It has some 10,000-17,000 heavily armed fighters that include some 2,000 Europeans, and is said to be financed by billions of dollars. Clearly it costs more than a few barrels of oil to pay for such mayhem and terror, so where is all that capital being held and through which channels does it pass?

IS currently controls 35,000 square miles of territory across two countries, in which it operates using US military equipment seized from the Iraqi army. But more armaments must be coming in from elsewhere. Likewise, IS displays levels of organization that are beyond the average terrorist group. Consequently, in the words of a BBC News Middle East report (22 August 2014), IS is better understood “as a hybrid revolutionary movement with nation-building aspirations and conventional armed forces. This makes them vulnerable – they have more material infrastructure and capabilities to target than, say, Al-Qaeda – but are more resilient.” Nations are not built overnight.

The big question is who is financing IS? Who has most to gain from the establishment of an ultra-conservative modern caliphate? Or, to turn the question around, who has most to lose?

German Development Minister Gerd Mueller has accused Qatar of financing IS militants, although Qatar has denied the charge. Quatar strongly backed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed, and has given refuge to many foreign Islamists including some from Hamas and the Taliban. Since 2011, Qatar has actively supported Syrian opposition groups by providing them with weapons and it pledged $60 million in humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians and refugees.

Arms-tradeQatar is the world’s richest country per capita and an influential player in the Arab world. It supported several rebel groups during the Arab Spring both financially and by asserting influence through its Al Jazeera Media Network. But in recent months Quatar has lost some of its standing because Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain fundamentally disagree with its foreign policy.

Looking elsewhere, there is no evidence that the Saudi government is providing direct support to IS (which it views as posing a threat to the kingdom’s security and has formally designated a terrorist entity along with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Muslim Brotherhood, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Saudi Hezbollah). However, in recent years private individuals in the Arab Gulf – of which Saudis are believed to be the most generous – have funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria, including IS and other groups. Within Saudi Arabia there is covert support for IS, which directly targets Saudis with fundraising campaigns.

Ultimately it is the international banking system that is complicit in channelling enormous sums of money into IS coffers and out again in payment of vast quantities of weaponry. The system clearly conspires to fund terrorism – unless we are to believe that camel trains laden with gold bars periodically set off across the desert. But how is it being done? Who is covering it up? Who is supplying the arms? And who knows about it and is keeping quiet?

Edward Snowden, where are you when most we need you?

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