Courtesy of BBC News Middle East, Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, has responded to my recent question about who funds Islamic State (IS) extremists in Iraq and Syria. He paints a sinister picture.
Given the ideologies involved and the greed and corruption in which international arms dealing is mired, even a half-way true account is difficult to disentangle. According to Stephens – and as many commentators have pointed out – wealthy individuals from the Gulf States have funded extremist groups in Syria, “many taking bags of cash to Turkey and simply handing over millions of dollars at a time.”
Apparently this practice was more common in 2012 and 2013, but it does cover a small percentage of the total income flowing into Islamic State coffers in 2014. The intermediary role of Turkey (a member of NATO and a candidate for membership of the European Union) is dubious, to say the least, seeming to play both sides against the middle.
In the belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon fall and that Sunni Islam was a means to achieve their own political goals, Saudi Arabia and Quatar (long suspected of destabilising the region) have both funded groups with violent Islamist and extremist credentials. However, it is questionable if Qatar directly funded the Islamic State, although a “combination of shoddy policy and naivety has led to Qatar-funded weapons and money making their way into the hands of IS.”
Stephens believes that Saudi Arabia never openly decided to fund IS, but in the covert world of Saudi politics, who really knows who is doing what? Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s determination to remove Assad has led to serious mistakes in its choice of allies.
It also seems certain that Quatar, in addition to turning a blind eye to private fundraising for Al Qaeda in Syria, has provided at least some assistance – whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons – to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. This hardly constitutes a track-record for peace.
But it seems that all of this is outweighed by the quasi-state structures – so-called ministries, law courts and even a rudimentary taxation system – that the Islamic State itself has put in place to pay for its excesses. As Stephens comments, “in every activity – from fighting, to organisation and hierarchy, to media messaging – IS is light years ahead of the assorted motley crew of opposition factions operating in the region.”
Crucially, IS also exports about 9,000 barrels of oil a day at prices ranging from $25-$45 (i.e. an average of $270,000 a day or more on the black market), although how such transactions come about is obscure. According to Stephens, “Some of this goes to Kurdish middlemen up towards Turkey, some goes for domestic IS consumption and some goes to the Assad regime, which in turn sells weapons back to the group.” Yes, Assad buys the oil in return for weapons that IS uses against… well, practically anyone that gets in its way. And who suffers? Anyone who gets in the way.
Stephens’ final words are chilling:
“The point is that Islamic State is essentially self-financing; it cannot be isolated and cut off from the world because it is intimately tied into regional stability in a way that benefits not only itself, but also the people it fights. The larger question of course is whether such an integral pillar of the region (albeit shockingly violent and extreme) can be defeated.”
And what if it cannot?