How IS became the richest of all time

By Silke Vanrompay

Monday morning the radionews announced that about one hundred and thirthy thousand fugitives had crossed the border between Turkey and Syria. Mainly Kurds who escaped from the terror of the Islamic State (IS), which were able to conquer a sixtyfold of cities in the Kurdish enclave at the border with Turkey in a couple days. [1]

Tuesday morning at the same time, the message that the United States have begun with the bombing of IS targets arrives. The bombs were focusing on the city of Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State in Syria, but also other cities, training camps, headquarters and checkpoints were hit. After a few hours the terror group responds. A member of the IS declares to the press agency Reuters that ‘the attacks will be responded’ and that ‘Saudi-Arabia is responsible for the bombings’. [2]

Meanwhile, the IS continues to broadcast video’s in a high tempo. What began with the decapitation of journalists James Folley, Steven Sotloff and social worker David Haines, quickly evolved in a genuine propaganda campaign. Moments later the British journalist John Cantlie was staged, in the same orange uniform that his predecessors died in. But Cantlie stayed alive. More than that, he wants to ‘explain and disperse the philosophy of the IS’ with his video messages. He describes the extremists as the ‘most powerful jihadists in a long time’ and warns that military actions won’t harm the group badly. Further on, he says that the American President Barack Obama and his international coalition are involved in a war they can’t win. [3]

Bread and fundamentalism

The terrorist group IS, under the leadership of the Jordan jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria in June and pursues a reign of terror against religious dissidents. Strict directives are imposed to the schools, subjects as history, literature and Christianity are permanently deleted [4] and the group keeps seizing cities next to important routes, critical infrastructure or borders in a high tempo. In the conquered areas IS keeps important services as markets, bakeries and gas stations operating, while using brute force to impose its vision of a fundamentalist Islamic state. Religious police make sure that shops close during prayers and that women cover their hair and faces in public. [5] Many kids or young adolescents are educated in training camps to become a child soldier or a terrorist. [6] Eyewitnesses describe how men are decapitated, women are raped and Kurds, also elderly people and invalids, are massacred.[7] A new, secretly filmed, video gives a proper image of how the life under the IS-dominion really is. [8]

Many of the IS-leaders are formal officers from Saddam Hussein’s army, who augmented their military training with terrorist techniques during years of fighting American troops.[9] However, a big part of the combatants don’t originate from the fighting area. It’s estimated that about 12.000 foreigners from 74 countries participate in the war in Syria and Iraq. The majority comes from nearby Muslim countries like Tunisia and Saudi-Arabia, but also countries like Belgium, China, Russia and the US are strongly represented.[10] The total amount of warriors of the IS is estimated at 31.500 by the CIA. [11] Another important aspect of the militaries is that these are often youngsters, who are recruited by the internet to fight a holy battle. Through a clever educative program on the spot, the IS succeeds in the quick manipulation and indoctrination of the new recruits and a fast initiation with the most fundamentalist Muslim customs.[12]

It’s all about the money

Is everyone fighting for the IS really convinced of the ideal of the Islamic State? Probably not. A young men describes to the Financial Times: “They offered me 1.500 dollar per month, plus a car, a house an all necessary camera’s.” He declined, but his testimony is again a prove of the enormous wealth of the movement, by which it can pay the foreign combatants and weapons. [13] The IS gets her revenues from different sources: contributions from abroad, mainly the Gulf States and the wider Muslim world, ransoms, extortions and, most important, the sale of oil, cereals and antique. During her advancement the movement has seized oilfields, farming land and banks. [14] Further, the IS forces the locals, in the occupied areas, to give them ten to twenty percent of their income, what equals one million dollar per day.

But it’s mainly the sale of oil that makes the IS  the wealthiest terrorist groups in history. According to experts, the movement earns about one to two million dollar per day with the sale of oil, [15] which goes to Turkey, Syria, Iran or the Iraqi Kurds, [16] mainly by the Turkish border. [17] That oil comes from one of the many oilfields in East-Syria or Iraq that the IS have conquered. In July the combatants were able to seize Omar, the biggest oilfield of the country, good for a production of 10.000 barrels per day. [18] But the IS also has 25.000 to 40.000 barrels per day at its disposal in Iraq, good for 1,2 million dollars on the black market.


If we want to defeat the Islamic State, we have to hit them in the first place financially. Two important challenges come up for the international coalition. The first consists in convincing Turkey that it has to guard his boundaries more strictly and to better control the boundary traffic of the oil. Turkey, mainly the South, is indeed an important pivot in the selling of Iraqi and Syrian oil on the black market. [19] A prominent of the Turkish ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that the confiscated amount of oil at the Turkish-Syrian border has risen with 300 percent since the beginning of the Syrian rebellion in 2011 and that Turkey “tries to stop the trade, but that it’s difficult to guard the border”.

A second concern is the effect of the economic measures for the locals. The oil trade is firmly anchored in the local economy.  The interruption of these activities is dangerous, because it can lead to a humanitarian crises in a yet unstable region. “If we adjust the trade of some products, we risk to sentence thousands of people to hunger”. According to Alexander Evans, head of the UN-team that investigates the financing of the IS, the measures against the economic machine of the group must indeed take into account the locals. “New actions have to find a balance between the necessity of stopping the financing of the IS and the guarantee of humanitarian needs of the population that suffers under their dominance. [20]

In the meanwhile a newsflash informs me that more than 120 prominent Muslim scholars call the militants of the IS to order and disprove the religious arguments the group uses the justify their actions. [21] Or how there are tiny sparks of hope, which try to extinguish the muslim-extremism.


© Reuters – IS-militants in Syria


[1] http://www.knack.be/nieuws/wereld/70-000-syrische-koerden-in-24-uur-naar-turkije-gevlucht/article-normal-431007.html

[2] http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20140923_01282648

[3] http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20140923_01282826

[4] http://www.knack.be/nieuws/wereld/is-bant-geschiedenis-literatuur-en-darwin-uit-scholen/article-normal-395449.html

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/16/world/middleeast/how-isis-works.html?ref=middleeast

[6] H. Ibish, « Pour les enfants: glaces, toboggans et doctrine », in Courrier internationaal, 18.09.2014, 12.

[7] M. Jégo, “Fuyant l’Etat Islamique, les Kurdes affluent Turquie”, in Le Monde, 23.09.2014, 5.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TkuAIKoI28

[9] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/16/world/middleeast/how-isis-works.html?ref=middleeast

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/13/world/middleeast/isis-recruits-prompt-laws-against-foreign-fighters.html

[11] R. Dekkers, “ISIS stuurt aan op Apocalyps”, in De Telegraaf, 20.09.2014, 11.

[12] H. Ibish, « Pour les enfants: glaces, toboggans et doctrine », in Courrier Internationaal, 18.09.2014, 12.

[13] X, “L’Etat Islamique ou le salaire de la peur”, in Les Echos, 23.09.2014, 11.

[14] N. Malas & M. Abi-Habib, “Financement: pétrole et extorsion”, in Courrier Internationaal, 18.09.2014, 13.

[15] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/16/world/middleeast/how-isis-works.html?ref=middleeast

[16] http://www.mo.be/analyse/de-militaire-vernietiging-van-de-islamitische-staat

[17] N. Malas & M. Abi-Habib, “Financement: pétrole et extorsion”, in Courrier Internationaal, 18.09.2014, 13.

[18] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/16/world/middleeast/how-isis-works.html?ref=middleeast

[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/world/middleeast/struggling-to-starve-isis-of-oil-revenue-us-seeks-assistance-from-turkey.html

[20] N. Malas & M. Abi-Habib, “Financement: pétrole et extorsion”, in Courrier Internationaal, 18.09.2014, 13.

[21] http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20140925_01287521