A new report published this month from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) titled “Cash to Chaos: Dismantling ISIS’ Financial Infrastructure” explores in some detail the various funding sources behind the Islamic State extremist group operating in Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS’ march across the globe is fueled not just by a hateful ideology—but by a constant cash flow,” McCaul said in releasing the report. “We cannot destroy the group without first disrupting its funding streams.”
The report identifies 14 key findings, including that the U.S. lacks a strategy and continues to struggle to disrupt ISIS’ funding. Several of the findings blame other countries for not enforcing sanctions or doing enough to crack down on ISIS smuggling across borders, or for not having sophisticated enough intelligence operations in place to prevent funds flowing to the extremist group.
“The U.S. Government has largely failed to develop a comprehensive government-wide approach to help foreign partners build the capacity to combat terror financing,” the report notes, while also recognizing that some countries in the region may be ambivalent about how much they even really oppose ISIS’ goals. “ISIS continues to receive financial assistance from supporters in permissive Gulf State countries,” according to the report.
Other key findings include that “ISIS has been able to adapt to battlefield setbacks and generate new sources of revenue to support the group’s mission.” The U.S. government is unable to clearly track the amount of funding the terrorist group gets from online sources, cash transfers and bogus charities, according to the report.
McCaul’s report also makes the claim that the “Obama Administration has weakened America’s no-negotiation stance toward terrorist groups who kidnap U.S. persons, and it has failed to take meaningful action to deter foreign governments from making ransom payments to ISIS and other terror groups.”
Additionally, it goes into some detail about the process by which ISIS profits from black market sales of looted antiques and historical artifacts taken from areas that have come under its control, and the largely Western demand that is driving this particularly tragic and regrettable phenomenon:
ISIS’s rapid expansion has contributed to the widespread destruction of historical artifacts and cultural sites across Iraq and Syria. For instance, the group has systematically raided United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-protected sites such as Palmyra, Nimrud, Apamea, and Nineveh. In these places, priceless relics have either been ruined for propaganda or plundered to finance the terror outfit’s activities.
ISIS and other groups have ransacked archaeological sites to obtain valuable items such as gold and silver—and to sell those items on the black market. Based on a 2015 review of satellite imagery of 1,200 archaeological sites and monuments in Syria, more than twenty five percent have been looted since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. According to an expert on Iraqi antiquities, “tablets, manuscripts and cuneiforms are the most common …and, unfortunately, [there is an appetite for these goods] in Europe and America.” According to one forensic archaeologist, dealers and conservators often work together to create a paper trail for plundered artifacts to legitimize future sales at auction houses from London to New York. For example, a police raid in Bulgaria in early 2015 revealed an expansive black market in these antiquities in Europe and the United States, including 19 classical statues and other artifacts.
Black-market buyers are also known to purchase Iraqi and Syrian antiquities in markets in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. A single artifact from Iraq can draw hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Syrian antiquities have been surfacing in well-known auction houses in London in recent years. In fact, recent U.S. Government data indicates that Syrian antique imports to the United States spiked in 2013, the same year ISIS formally emerged and the conflict in Syria began worsening.
Indeed, it is clear that while ISIS has many resources and revenue streams — from oil production to kidnapping for ransom — many of them are also inseparably connected to the West, including some not mentioned in McCaul’s report.
The report does not discuss, for example, that a formerly-secret, now-declassified document from 2012 shows that the U.S. at the time saw the deteriorating situation in Syria “taking a clear sectarian direction,” with Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — soon to become better known under the re-branded name of ISIS — as “the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
In a section of this document titled “The Future Assumptions of the Crisis,” the first assumption listed is that “the (Assad) regime will survive and have control over Syrian territory.” The document goes on to note the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syrian” — a situation eerily similar to what we see today with ISIS.
In the years since that secret document was written, through sources such as the Iraqi military and a miscalculated American air drop, ISIS has acquired weaponry and equipment including Humvees, rocket propelled grenades, U.S. military-issue M16s, and M1 Abrams tanks.
And despite talk of an “operational pause” over a year ago, in March of this year President Obama authorized a new Defense Department plan to arm and train yet another group of Syrian rebels, even as revelations emerged that CIA-backed and Pentagon-backed Syrian militias were actually fighting each other.
“Today, ISIS operates as a pseudostate with widespread access to commodities and natural resources, as well as a modern online infrastructure that can be used to raise large sums of money,” McCaul’s report notes. “The group is constantly changing its fundraising tactics. If left unchecked, the group’s financial resiliency will allow it to recover from battlefield losses, regenerate, and expand. More importantly, ISIS supporters will have more opportunities to self-fund operations, potentially increasing the number of attacks at home and abroad.”
As the U.S. continues pursuing its ostensible dual goals of simultaneously trying to overthrow both the ISIS “caliphate” and the government of Syria, it seems that for the time being, at least, the window of opportunity for Islamist terrorists to capitalize on the chaos will remain wide open.
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