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Islamic State Funding Across the World: Methods, Connections, and Resurgence

Updated: Jul 8

Teams/Authors: Marco Parks, Aimee Hanstein, Isaac Greenman, CENTCOM Team; Niall Paltiel, AFRICOM Team; Ana Rosa Del Rey Revilla, PACOM Team; Samuel Nunn, Illicit Finance and Economic Threats (IFET) Team

Date: Monday, June 7, 2021


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Flag[1]


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS, ISIS, or ISIL) procures well over US$100 million yearly among its branches in Africa and Southeast Asia as well as its base in the Middle East.[2] To fund its terror operations in 2021, IS branches and its main base in Iraq and Syria raise funds by extorting oil smuggling networks, kidnapping for ransom, front companies, and taxation. The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) analysis demonstrates that the funding connections between IS branches are most explicit in the Middle East-Africa nexus. By exporting funding from the ISIS hub to launch attacks and maintain a robust operational tempo in Africa, the Islamic State has capitalized on fraught political transitions and lack of security sector accountability to project an image of strength that will attract purpose-seeking young men and improve morale among its supporters. Given ISIS’s buttressing of its affiliates in Africa with funds and guidance, CTG’s analysis concludes that the financial strengthening of sub-Saharan African branches is likely to provide monetary aid back to ISIS and demonstrate that their global jihad is still alive, thus promoting its resurgence in Syria and Iraq. Without a concerted effort to preempt the funding tactics that enable this reemerging threat in 2021, ISIS is highly likely to exploit the pressing economic, public health, and security challenges and continue to expand until local and international actors are forced to address the problem, which will have worsened exponentially.


Shifting Islamic State Funding Methods from Past to Present


The Islamic State in the Middle East, like its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, is virtually self-sufficient in terms of funding, as it is independent of both external states and wealthy individual donors. Upon its rise to global prominence in 2014, ISIS’s monetary expenditures, estimated at US$80 million per month in the Middle East, required it to employ effective methods to fund itself and remain solvent in its peak from 2014 to 2016.[3] Its successful accumulation of wealth, estimated at US$1 to US$1.7 billion in 2015, was a crucial component of the group’s ability to execute sophisticated military operations and occupy large parts of Iraq and Syria.[4] Generally, its financial strength rests on two primary modes of exploitation: procuring funding from domestic sources and financial independence funds and utilizing porous borders (like the one dividing Syria and Turkey) and ungoverned territories to transport funds freely. ISIS employed revenue to control and administrate the territory it seized, while its territorial expansion also enabled more exploitation, thus further contributing to its overall wealth. Many characteristics of ISIS’s finances often surpass the ability of common counter-terrorist financing strategies.


ISIS endeavored to control a variety of public resources and infrastructure as a means of assembling a diverse financial portfolio. Some of these resources, such as oil (about 32% of ISIS’s wealth) and antiquities, were smuggled and sold for egregious profits.[5] Given the surplus of exploitable oil found in regions of Syria or Iraq wherein the state lacks a monopoly on violence, these sources of financing were theoretically forms of quick and easy funds, assuming that there existed a market of illegally sourced oil. During its apogee, ISIS created a market by selling its oil at discounted prices to various traders or intermediaries in domestic markets.[6] Understanding its limited assortment of willing customers and transportations capabilities, the group demonstrated a degree of pragmatism by selling to proclaimed “infidels,” including the Assad regime in Syria and the Kurds in Iraq, as well as agents in Turkey.[7] Although the Turkish border is porous, its use as a conduit by ISIS enabled oil transportation to be resold into legitimate markets. In theory, Turkey could fully close its border to these activities; however, exceeding the physical challenge in closing the border, Turkey would risk retaliation from ISIS inside Turkish territory.


Other means of ISIS funding primarily included taxes and fees and kidnapping, looting, and confiscations, comprising an estimated 70% of the group’s total wealth from 2014 to 2016.[8] ISIS levied taxes on the businesses and locals residing in the group’s controlled territory - these included standard state taxes, religious taxes involving fines for not obeying extremist social codes, and departure taxes of up to US$1,000 from those able to pay to leave ISIS territory.[9] While the terror group frames this as “charitable giving” to Islam, in reality, its system of taxation is a sophisticated protection racket where involuntary “donations” buy temporary safety or continuity of business. As ISIS expanded its territory to approximately 42,000 square miles in late 2014, its taxable land expanded.[10] This contributed to the group’s financial stockpile and military strength. The miscellaneous and varied nature of these funding methods enabled the organization to maintain a steady flow of income. ISIS’s employment of its “kidnap, kill, and extort” strategy prior to its occupation of taxable territory likely provided it with the foundational funding that advanced its expansion and fiscal growth. By kidnapping, killing, and then extorting, ISIS has accomplished three goals rather than one. Killing the hostage will incite more fear and chaos in the “infidel” population through its horrific symbolism, carry out ISIS’s extremist doctrine of slaughtering unbelievers, and yield funds for the group’s insurgency because the victim’s family will pay ransoms for his body. For these reasons, this money-yielding tactic has notoriously signified ISIS’s growth in resources and strength.


CTG’s analysis shows that ISIS’s harsh implementation of its particular brand of Salafism has had two repercussions for its capacity to draw from the religion-based taxation stream. First, starting in mid-2015, the Iraqi government halted its payments to employees in ISIS-controlled territory, denying them access to individual income;[11] consequently, this reduced the amount of revenue raised through religious taxes for Muslims (zakat). Second, the despotic and exclusionary hand with which ISIS governs employed a form of the Islamic law that terrorizes foreign hostages and non-Muslim groups, such as Christians or Yazidis, and establishes an austere and intolerant social contract with the Muslim population it aspires to govern. This often resulted in its citizenry either fleeing or dying, thereby diminishing the pool of taxpayers.[12] Likely to counteract this response, among other techniques, ISIS attempted to maintain a feeling of normalcy by encouraging businesses to remain open.


The remaining means of funding for ISIS that make up its financial portfolio are less lucrative and more miscellaneous. Agriculture, energy, and water utilities generate limited revenue and require significant investment inputs or technical expertise.[13] ISIS likely aimed to gain image-based clout from exploiting these resources, which helped the group portray itself as practicing the duties of a legitimate government. Activities such as kidnapping for ransom or looting state banks were (and continue to be) profitable in the short term but not sustainable. Generally, the group’s increasing control of Iraq and Syria’s resources became important not only for the funds derived from it but also for the degree to which it limited the state government’s ability to feed its citizens, render services, or trade.


Despite the loss of its physical caliphate, ISIS remains active beyond the borders it has once claimed.[14] Losing its physical caliphate likely freed the group’s financial responsibilities that go into maintaining a physical state. Though the group does not have to pay for a physical state anymore, much of this money can go into recruitment and propaganda. Despite these changes, many of ISIS funding tools have seemed to remain the same over time. In 2020 and 2021, ISIS has continued to raise funds through extortion of oil smuggling networks in eastern Syria, kidnapping for ransom (targeting civilian businesses and populations), and the operation of front companies. ISIS also continued to use networks of couriers to smuggle cash between Iraq and Syria. The group relied on money services businesses, including hawala, to transfer funds between Iraq and Syria and internationally, often relying on logistical hubs in Turkey. These funding tactics are not new and are likely to continue to be a successful funding method for the group. Given the economic crisis in Iraq and Syria, black markets, extortion, front companies, and other relatively inconspicuous methods are best for the group to obtain funds as these methods can remain under the radar and are likely not as affected by the economy due to their illicit nature. It is also likely that given the current state of these countries, ISIS relies on government corruption.


Outside of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has seemed to turn to Afghanistan. IS-K (Islamic State Khorasan) has gained support from ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria.[15] This is important as it expands the ISIS and IS-K presence and could make for a more robust and advanced Islamic State. Overall, the Islamic State has invested some financial resources in its Khorasan province - as much as several hundred thousand dollars - to improve its networks and organization in Central Asia.[16] Given the current state of terrorism in Afghanistan due to clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces, IS-K becomes a more prominent organization and potentially even collaborates with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. An increase in support and activity in Afghanistan is likely to increase Islamic State’s presence in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, thus expanding illicit funding opportunities due to more resources.


Given the group’s activities through the black market, it is likely that many of these activities happen on the darknet, which may also increase its current and future funding. ISIS was first noticed utilizing the dark web to remain online in January 2019.[17] When the site was discovered in 2019, it was mainly a propaganda depository and way to recruit members; however, the site has likely evolved into a possible marketplace for illicit goods. If government forces have since deleted the original site discovered in 2019, it is very likely the group has developed more pages. There is a low confidence assessment that ISIS may now, or in the future, turn to cryptocurrency as a means to fund its organization, following the tracks of al-Qaeda.


The Islamic State in the Pacific Command (PACOM) region is active via local branches and allied groups that share its ideology and purpose. ISIS-Bangladesh, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) based in the Philippines, and East Indonesian Mujahidin (MIT) are the most significant ISIS branches and affiliated groups in the region. In the past, they received money and training from other Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS itself. ISIS-Bangladesh, an essential branch of ISIS in the region, financed itself due to ISIS fundings. The Abu Sayyaf group received funding from Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. The latter is an extremist Islamist group that, although not allied with ISIS, plays a notable role in the region and, with their fundings and training, helped to spread the extremist ideology. As for MIT, before declaring their allegiance with ISIS, they mainly received fundings from private donors from the region who paid to prevent becoming a target of the group.


Nowadays, most ISIS branches and allied groups in the PACOM region have become economically self-sufficient, thus earning fiscal independence from the ISIS core. Even though ISIS continues to help these groups with fundings and training, they have developed other financing methods. Abu Sayyaf group's primary source of financing is criminal activity, including kidnapping, smuggling, blackmailing, and extortion.[18] ASG's most known tactic to receive funding is maritime kidnapping for ransom, having collected at least US$14 million since 2014.[19] MIT continues to receive ISIS fundings since they confirmed their allegiance with ISIS in 2014, reducing local donor fundings.[20] Moreover, MIT was one of the first terrorist groups to collect money thanks to internet fraud, hacking foreign trading platforms, thus earning about US$40 thousand in a few months in 2012.[21] ISIS-Bangladesh also started using criminal activity to finance their activities. The strategic situation of the country and its porous borders with Myanmar and India represent a challenge for controlling illicit flows. Above all, this ISIS branch finances itself via arms sales, drugs, and counterfeit US dollars that enter Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar and the Golden Triangle.[22] Terrorist organizations use different traditional Islamic financial methods like hawala or hundi to launder and transfer money easily.


Within the Africa Command (AFRICOM) region, the Islamic State’s presence is seen both in regional branches such as ISIS Sinai Province (ISIS-SP) as well as larger affiliate “provinces” such as ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province), ISCAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province), and ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara).[23] These groups are the recipients of the most considerable amounts of ISIS support and aid on the continent as they are the most prominent and essential components for the majority of ISIS objectives in Africa.[24] While in the past, these various IS AFRICOM regional groups received much greater levels of financial support from ISIS, this is not the case anymore. By 2018, ISWAP’s total yearly income had grown to US$35.5 million while ISIS financial support had dropped to US$1.5 million due to the reduction of ISIS proper as an organization.[25] This drop of financial support on the part of ISIS was due, in part, to ISWAP being able to sustain its operations without continued financial support increasingly. This has allowed ISIS the opportunity to partially redirect funds towards less financially stable affiliate groups, as well as the increased pressure being put on ISIS proper by coalition forces in the Middle East.


In the present day, ISIS AFRICOM regional affiliates have become increasingly established throughout the African continent, with some existent groups being nearly a decade old.[26] This extended period has allowed for the finances of many of these groups to evolve as well. As ISWAP (and other ISIS affiliates) grew in size as an organization and began to extract alternate sources of revenue, it became less and less reliant on financial support from the central ISIS organization. These alternate sources of revenue, which have been pursued nearly universally by ISIS AFRICOM affiliates, included kidnappings with the intent to ransom, extortion, pillaging, theft, and private donations from sympathetic individuals and parties internationally.[27]


As some ISIS affiliates such as ISWAP or ISCAP have increasingly taken on the state’s role in many territories they occupy, this has allowed them to engage in certain state functions such as taxation on goods and revenue.[28] The growth in taxation and economic activity within ISIS affiliate group territories corresponds to the length of time these organizations have been present within certain regions and indicates that the longer these groups remain intact within their occupied territories, the more stable their finances will become. Alongside taxation and economic activity growth, ISIS African affiliates are also increasingly utilizing drug trafficking, smuggling, and direct mineral and oil extraction as methods to further increase their revenues.[29] This indicates that ISIS AFRICOM regional affiliates seek an increased widening in their revenue options that see them spread into financial areas traditionally operated by states and private companies (such as mineral extraction) and illegal criminal networks (drug trafficking, smuggling). Both methods ensure that completely cutting off financing from ISIS affiliates in Africa will be near impossible due to the vast network of revenue streams they possess.


Comparative Analysis on the Funding Tactics Employed in Each Region


Since ISIS has numerous income streams, numerous regional conditions contribute to its ability to sustain monetary growth. First, the most publicized method of its fundraising is kidnapping and ransom deals. ISIS can consistently kidnap both local and foreign civilians and use them for ransom due to the military power it holds. Local law enforcement and military forces do not have the support or human resources to consistently react and protect against ISIS’s countless kidnappings. Due to how easy it is for ISIS operatives to kidnap and hold people for ransom, it is difficult for authorities to keep up with it constantly. The lack of funding and lack of manpower allows ISIS to kidnap with impunity, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. Second, ISIS raises much of its budget through donations. These donations are accepted through charities that act as fronts for the insurgency. These charities are established and currently operate in many countries that lack the governmental power to shut them down. With terrorist cells operating in nations with frail governments, such as Afghanistan and Syria, these governments do not have the ability or resources to monitor and investigate finances properly, and frequently the region has acted as an epicenter for terrorist financing that foreign powers either do not want to be involved or cannot make a difference with their actions.


Another way the region allows for ISIS to grow fiscally is due to its lack of territorial legitimacy. ISIS has long been a controller of a significant portion of the region’s land. Controlling key cities and checkpoints allows the insurgency to exert a level of power and legitimacy over the local government. This especially occurs when the government's loss of land is taken into consideration. With ISIS controlling physical territory that the government and other forces cannot retrieve, it is free to operate black markets on its controlled territory. Smuggling drugs, weapons, contraband, and even people through its dominated territory is a way in which ISIS raises funds. In addition, due to the regional authorities being unable to take back their land, ISIS has begun freely mining for oil on the territory it has captured.[30] ISIS uses this oil both for its operations and sells it to others to fund its operations.


A significant connection in ISIS funding noticed by PACOM and the Illicit Finance and Economic Threats (IFET) Teams is the use of private donors to fund and finance insurgent operations. Due to the powerful ideology, many wealthy donors, both domestic and foreign, help spread the ideology themselves by funding ISIS operations. Depending on the region where the ISIS cell is located, the donors will vary. In PACOM, the donors are from the PACOM region, though there are instances of overseas individuals making donations through fake charities, such as Sons of Liberty International (SOLI) and Humanitarian Defense Abroad (HDA).[31] Another similarity between IFET and PACOM’s findings is the use of extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling to fund their operations. Since the primary goal of ISIS is to control land governed by its ideology, it has made it feasible for itself to carry out smuggling and kidnapping without retaliation from local governments.


Part of ISIS financial operations in the AFRICOM region includes collaboration with other terrorist organizations in the area, such as Boko Haram. The logistics of whom they are kidnapping and what they are smuggling change depending on the region they inhabit, but the activities stay the same. Depending on the region, the use of natural resources will change, i.e., drilling oil. It is also highly likely that ISIS and other ISIS-affiliated groups are provided with a manual on how to raise funds. The similarities in their funding tactics throughout all regions clarify that they are being instructed to kidnap, smuggle, and extort. Another reason a manual is likely in use is that, within PACOM and AFRICOM, there are more lucrative fundraising opportunities that ISIS could turn to, yet they still choose to stick with the same methods despite these opportunities.


Funding Connections between Islamic State Branches


When considering whether certain groups have contributed to ISIS’s resurgence, the answer is yes and no. The answer is no because there is no single group that can be purely tied to the succession of ISIS. If one were to try and identify a singular responsible entity, it would more likely be a military or state group than another insurgency. The number of funding tactics and markets that ISIS is involved in making it impossible for them to be affected solely due to the influence of one singular rival organization. The answer is yes because the decline of other rival terrorist organizations has opened up further financial opportunities for ISIS in the area. The regression of groups, such as Al-Qaeda, has allowed ISIS and other ISIS-affiliated groups to occupy the space they left behind. This presents exploitable physical territory and market space. Where other groups once smuggled, extorted, kidnapped, and blackmailed, ISIS has now been able to take over its space and expand its fundraising opportunities. Many groups at work globally have contributed to ISIS’s resurgence, such as Boko Haram and Ansar al-Sharia, though some more than others.


Of the many Islamic State branches in the AFRICOM region, the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), aided by ISIS, has been contending for a more prominent role in the constellation of Islamic State affiliates in 2020 and 2021. While ISCAP’s allegiance to the Islamic State is explicit, the exchange of funds and other means of support between ISCAP and the Islamic State’s hub in Iraq and Syria is more subtle while also indicating mutual strengthening. Last year, ISCAP launched its first successful assault on Tanzania after receiving the funding, media guidance, and reinforcements of tactical strategists originating from ISIS’s core.[32] The impact of this financial and strategic connection has been reflected in increasingly sophisticated military operations, most recently demonstrated in ISCAP’s siege of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, where rapid strikes overwhelmed and drove out Mozambican military forces.[33] ISIS’s supplying trainers and funding can act as a force multiplier and have an outsized influence in shaping local conflicts.


ISCAP’s growth via its importation of ISIS funding and its own financial methods is disconcerting for several reasons: it is interested in holding territory rather than merely looting it, threatening natural gas facilities that are important for the global economy, and committing brutalities towards civilians it views as hostile. The group's aspirations to maintain a long-term influence in the region are further demonstrated by its capture of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, which affords it the ability to stockpile more funds and obtain resupplies. Given ISIS’s buttressing of its affiliate, ISCAP, with funds and guidance, it can be inferred that the financial strengthening of sub-Saharan Africa branches will provide monetary aid to ISIS, thus promoting its resurgence in Syria and Iraq.


With the core of ISIS reeling from sustained Western counterterrorism campaigns, the revealed funding connections among Islamic State branches demonstrate that its leadership seeks to elevate regional branches throughout sub-Saharan Africa while enduring a period of weakness in the Middle East. The intentions of this initiative are highly likely to expand its influence, garner recruits, spread propaganda, and, in cases like Mozambique, capture territory. Additionally, the Islamic State has forged ties with many local insurgencies in sub-Saharan Africa as what seems to be a union of convenience. For the militants, the ISIS brand yields recognition and legitimacy from local governments and the funding that the homegrown guerrillas crave. In turn, the Islamic State has been able to take responsibility for the local militants’ attacks as confirmation that their global jihad is still alive. Therefore, by exporting funding from the ISIS hub to launch attacks and maintain a robust operational tempo in Africa, the Islamic State has capitalized on fraught political transitions and lack of security sector accountability to project an image of strength that will attract purpose-seeking young men and improve morale among its supporters.


The Islamic State’s Resurgence in Syria and Iraq


Since ISIS does not have a territorial stronghold, much recruitment and activity are very likely to be done online, especially in the darknet. On the darknet, ISIS has already begun staging and planning attacks.[34] The slight resurgence in 2018 was based on its existing war chest, linked with its skill at developing new streams of revenue.[35] Since 2018, coupled with the move to online recruitment and planning of attacks on the darknet, ISIS has increased the number of attacks in Iraq and Syria. It is also likely that the group could begin a resurgence because of the current economic crises in both countries, leading to an unstable environment that is very likely to allow terrorism to thrive. ISIS and Iranian-backed militias in Iran may have similar long-term goals regarding terrorism, namely expelling Western forces from the Middle East. Given that ISIS is a Sunni group and Iranian-backed militias are Shia, ISIS likely has an incentive to resurge due to its competitive endeavors to prove itself against groups backed by Iran.


Therefore, the resurgence in Syria and Iraq is already underway, though the attacks are minor compared to the amount done when ISIS was at its strongest. 2020 saw significant growth in IS attacks in its traditional heartlands of Syria and Iraq and their growing presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Africa.[36] Although ISIS lost territory, it did not lose its ideology. While it is difficult to put a precise number on their manpower, there is evidence that they are re-establishing themselves in the Middle East.[37] In 2021, there have been many attacks claimed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, especially in conflict areas where various forces are present; these attacks have been documented in CTG’s Central Command (CENTCOM) 3D reports over the last five months of 2021. Given the security vacuums in both countries, it is likely that ISIS resurgence will continue to increase, especially as US troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq. It is also likely that ISIS will take advantage of the military and political issues in Iraq and Syria to re-establish a foothold and territory. Although worldwide the COVID-19 pandemic has seemed to decrease, for many analysts, the increase in IS attacks in 2020 resulted from the security gaps left behind by the distraction of COVID-19.[38] While the Middle East continues to grapple with the pandemic, the group will likely continue to take advantage and potentially get away with more attacks. Though the instability in Iraq, Syria, and even Afghanistan, gives the group an advantage, the growth and resurgence of ISIS will likely be slower and gradual as the group has likely also faced difficulties because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Effectively Combating the Islamic State’s Funding Methods


Different measures have been employed in the PACOM region to counter ISIS, its branches, and affiliates. The ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), ratified by all ASEAN countries since 2013, has set the judiciary base to develop coordinated strategies against terrorism activities. Some of the measures include the combat against different crimes that inherently are linked to terrorism in the region, such as narcotics and human smuggling.[39] Recently, ASEAN countries have focused on prevention and deradicalization, understanding that even though protective measures are necessary, it is crucial to understand radical jihadi ideology. This new focus develops a vital role in preventing citizens from entering radicalized groups. This Convention also lets ASEAN countries share information more efficiently.


The Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), Indonesia's financial intelligence unit (PPATK), and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) have identified several measures to counter the financing of terrorism in the PACOM region.[40] While all of these organizations and coalitions have achieved some success, they overlook the natural resources sector, which is at a high risk of embezzlement or bribery. The risk is particularly high for countries rich in such resources, such as Indonesia. Therefore, multilateral action across borders must be taken by these organizations to counter money laundering schemes that move through multiple jurisdictions. Information and intelligence sharing between countries in the region are currently weak as there are neither the structures in place to facilitate this nor the will or resources to collaborate outside of such structures. In addition, it is necessary to involve the private sector, which can actively monitor suspicious activities and participate in implementing policies to combat terrorism financing. Again, Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) are not common neither at the national level in some cases nor across countries at a regional level. Asia Pacific nations should explore new PPPs as an essential tool in their countering terrorism financing arsenal.


A significant challenge is that a considerable submerged economy exists in the region, notably in isolated areas where state presence is weak or in decaying quarters of large urban centers. The problem is reinforced by the presence of criminal networks and organized crime syndicates. An example of this is the Golden Triangle region at the junction of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, home to sprawling criminal activities. This part of the economy is where many illicit transactions occur outside of the official financial system, which is by definition hidden and thus difficult to scrutinize and regulate. Transactions that occur through official channels are challenging enough to monitor, with those outside of the official global economy even more so. While the national-level efforts to police and surveil this economy vary significantly from country to country in the region, many of the countries most vulnerable to terror, radicalization, and being used as terrorism financing transit countries lack appropriate regulator frameworks and the modern technology required to do so. Terrorist financiers, as much as other types of financial criminals, are working at great speed to remain at the forefront of technological developments that allow them to launder money and finance terrorism without detection. Many governments and businesses operating in the Asia Pacific do not have the resources to keep pace. Limiting policy actions to the legal section of the economy is thus not sufficient to tackle terrorism financing. Lastly, the asymmetries in the policy framework between states leave gaps that terrorists can exploit to transfer funds and finance their activities.


Various measures have been employed to counter ISIS and its affiliates within Africa based on the geographic region in question. In West Africa, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a coalition of regional and international state actors that seek to militarily counter Islamic terrorist groups such as ISWAP or Boko Haram in West Africa, has been engaged in direct counterterrorism and counter-insurgency operations against ISWAP and Boko Haram for several years.[41] Aside from this, regional cooperation between various affected states also occurs, with Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger often coordinating assaults. While some progress has been made in the field, both efforts suffer from several problems and setbacks, particularly in winning the hearts and minds of citizens and members of ISIS affiliate groups, a task made difficult due to reasons such as the failings of African regional governments to ameliorate social, housing, and economic conditions for its populations, as well as the porous borders and geography across much of West Africa that allows groups such as ISWAP continued access to support.


In East Africa, efforts to counter groups such as ISCAP are driven on a much more individual state basis, especially in states where ISCAP poses a direct major security threat, such as Mozambique, where the government actively seeks to keep foreign intervention to a minimum. However, coalitions are still present, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where UN peacekeepers work alongside Congolese and Ugandan forces to contain terrorist groups in the eastern DRC. These efforts also suffer from similar problems in West Africa, with porous borders, challenging terrain, and disenchanted locals. All of this combines to produce counterterrorism efforts that lack the efficiency to be entirely decisive in their operations against their various targets.


Since there is no military presence in the region that can retaliate against ISIS consistently, it is unlikely that anything can be done to combat their constant kidnapping and extortion. It is unlikely that military action can be taken against ISIS to stop kidnappings, governments can ban ransom payments, thereby removing the incentive for kidnappings to occur. Studies show that kidnappings decreased in countries where governments were known not to support payment for terrorist kidnappings.[42] As for smuggling, heightened border security can help to limit what goods and how much they can ship internationally. The charity tactic is one that major financial institutions can regulate. If financial watchdogs such as the UN and FinCEN were to take action against said charities, it would be highly likely that ISIS’s cash flow would be significantly diminished. This could be done by establishing sections of law enforcement agencies (i.e., Department of Justice) dedicated to vetting and monitoring charities and those with which they are associated and implicated. Regular counter financing techniques such as freezing assets of terrorist groups are not effective for groups like ISIS, who rely on informal financial channels; therefore, a new approach is required. Intelligence officials believe the tried and true method of following the money is a more effective technique. Evidence shows it is very effective in tracking down and arresting financial supporters of groups like Boko Haram, who operate outside the confines of traditional financial systems, similar to ISIS.[43] Financial institutions’ more substantial efforts to provide easier credit terms or bank accounts will most likely deter business owners from using unregulated hawala and ISIS-supported money service lenders through the black market.


CTG recommends increased supervision of charities tied to regions known to be inhabited by ISIS and ISIS cells to address these threats. Increasing both the resources and personnel of relevant financial institutions will likely help in the limitation of global ISIS fundraising. This is especially true in countries with a strong ISIS presence, i.e. Syria and Afghanistan. If these nations were to implement significant financial oversight, money flowing into the region would be heavily monitored, making it easy to notice and confiscate any “charity” money designated for ISIS and ISIS-affiliated organizations. Another way states inhabited by ISIS could address the threats at hand is by strengthening border security. With much of ISIS financing coming from contraband smuggling across international borders, straining these operations would greatly diminish ISIS’s funding. Being able to seize illegal goods as they cross international borders would also help close popular smuggling routes, defeating ISIS-fueled smuggling and smuggling in general. CTG also recommends the implementation of specialty law enforcement units to combat the prolific kidnappings perpetrated by ISIS. Either domestic or transnational, having a law enforcement power specifically dedicated to neutralizing kidnappers would help to stop abductions committed by ISIS for ransom. To achieve this, international support is needed to those countries inhabited by ISIS. Often these states do not have the resources or personnel to combat ISIS properly, meaning that to defeat the threat of ISIS, funding, international assistance, and unity are required.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]ISIL Flag” by Theglobalpanorama licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror, Wall Street Journal, February 2015, https://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241

[3] “Islamic State’s Financing: Sources, Methods and Utilisation,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351519

[4] Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2017, https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ICSR-Report-Caliphate-in-Decline-An-Estimate-of-Islamic-States-Financial-Fortunes.pdf

[5] Ibid

[6] The ISIS Emni: The Inner Workings and Origins of ISIS Intelligence Apparatus, The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), December 2016, https://www.radicalisationresearch.org/research/speckhard-2017-isis-emni-origins/

[7] ISIS revenues include sales of oil to the al-Assad regime, ICSVE Brief Reports, April 2016, http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/isiss-revenues-include-sales-of-oil-to-the-al-assad-regime/

[8] Ibid

[9] “Islamic State’s Financing: Sources, Methods and Utilisation,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351519

[10] “How conflict affects land use: agricultural activity in areas seized by the Islamic State,” Environmental Research Letters, 2017, https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa673a

[11] “Despair, hardship as Iraq cuts off wages in Islamic State cities,” Reuters, October 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-salaries/despair-hardship-as-iraq-cuts-off-wages-in-islamic-state-cities-idUSKCN0RW0V620151002

[12] “Islamic State’s Financing: Sources, Methods and Utilisation,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351519

[13] Islamic State Financing and U.S. Policy Approaches, Congressional Research Service, April 2015, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/R43980.pdf

[14] ISIS, Counter Extremism Project, 2018, https://www.counterextremism.com/taxonomy_term/1008/printable/pdf

[15] Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2018, https://www.csis.org/programs/transnational-threats-project/terrorism-backgrounders/islamic-state-khorasan-k

[16] Ibid

[17] Extremist Content Online: ISIS Utilizes Dark Web to Remain Online, Counter Extremism Project, February 2019, https://www.counterextremism.com/press/extremist-content-online-isis-utilizes-dark-web-remain-online

[18] Abu-Sayaf Group, Center for International Security and Cooperation, August 2018, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/abu-sayyaf-group#highlight_text_11908

[19] Abu Sayyaf: The Chameleon in the World of Terror, Stable Seas, April 2020, https://www.stableseas.org/post/abu-sayyaf-the-chameleon-in-the-world-of-terror

[20] Existent Terrorism in Indonesia and the Opportunities for the Growth of Radical Islam and ISIS, ISS Risk, September 2016, http://issrisk.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ISS-Risk-Special-Report-Existent-Terrorism-in-Indonesia-September- 2016.pdf

[21] Terrorism in Indonesia: An Overview, Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (IEEE), 2015, http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_investig/2015/DIEEEINV04-2015_Terrorismo_en_Indonesia_FcoGalamas_ENGLISH.pdf

[22] Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh, International Crisis Group, February 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/bangladesh/295-countering-jihadist-militancy-bangladesh

[23] ISIS Spread in Africa, South Front, 2021, https://southfront.org/isis-spread-in-africa/

[24] Ibid

[25] Survival and Expansion: The Islamic States West Africa Province”, The Global Initiative for Civil Stabilisation Report, 2019, https://conflictstudies.gics.live/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/GICS-Survival-And-Expansion-of-the-Islamic-States- West-African-Province-Full.pdf

[26] Chad: Extremism & Terrorism, Counter Extremism Project, 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/chad

[27] Survival and Expansion: The Islamic States West Africa Province”, The Global Initiative for Civil Stabilisation Report, 2019, https://conflictstudies.gics.live/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/GICS-Survival-And-Expansion-of-the-Islamic-States- West-African-Province-Full.pdf

[28] Chad: Extremism & Terrorism, Counter Extremism Project, 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/chad

[29] ISIS is so Desperate its Turning to the Drug Trade, The RAND Blog, July 2017, https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/07/isis-is-so-desperate-its-turning-to-the-drug-trade.html

[30] “The Islamic State oil and gas strategy in North Africa,” Science Direct, 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211467X19300288

[31] “Combat charities” in the West and their Jihadi twin, Brookings, April 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/04/11/combat-charities-in-the-west-and-their-jihadi-twin/

[32] ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s Sub-Saharan Affiliates Are Poised for Growth in 2021, Defense One, February 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2021/02/isis-and-al-qaedas-sub-saharan-affiliates-are-poised-growth-2021/172313/

[33] Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado has been plagued by ISIS for years, South Front, April 2021, https://southfront.org/cabo-delgado-has-been-plagued-by-isis/

[34] Extremist Content Online: ISIS Utilizes Dark Web to Remain Online, Counter Extremism Project, February 2019, https://www.counterextremism.com/press/extremist-content-online-isis-utilizes-dark-web-remain-online

[35] ISIS's New Plans to Get Rich and Wreak Havoc, RAND Corporation, October 2018, https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/10/isiss-new-plans-to-get-rich-and-wreak-havoc.html

[36] Middle East – The resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Global Risk Insights, February 2021, https://globalriskinsights.com/2021/02/middle-east-the-resurgence-of-the-islamic-state-in-syria-and-iraq/

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] “The Trend to Counter Terrorism in ASEAN”, Journal of Advanced Research in Dynamical and Control Systems, 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343335535_The_Trend_to_Counter_Terrorism_in_ASEAN

[40] Countering terrorist financing and victim-based crime in South East Asia, AUSTRAC, November 2019, https://www.austrac.gov.au/about-us/media-release/countering-terrorist-financing-south-east-asia

[41] Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) Against Boko Haram, The African Peace Facility, 2019, https://africa-eu-partnership.org/sites/default/files/apf_factsheet_-_mnjtf.pdf

[42] To Pay Ransom or Not to Pay Ransom?, New America, 2017, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/policy-papers/pay-ransom-or-not/

[43] Following the Money, Center for a New American Security, June 2017, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/following-the-money-1

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