How the Islamic State Buys Power

Group covers most of its yearly expenses with a month’s income; entices recruits with high salaries.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, January 2014.
Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, January 2014. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Islamic State is making great efforts to conquer new territories and expand its rule to cities and districts now controlled by rebel militias, or by the Syrian or Iraqi regimes. But en route, there’s no getting around the need for life to go on, to enable the people now under the group’s control to make a living and pay taxes, to run schools and sanitation services. What’s more, the fighters must also be provided for. Not only must they be paid salaries and given comfortable conditions, they must also be allowed to raise families.

Last week, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to give any fighter who gets married $1,200 and a furnished apartment. The apartments were those that the organization seized from refugees, non-Muslims, and members of the regime they’ve replaced. Baghdadi is paying salaries from the sale of Syrian and Iraqi crude oil, and ongoing operations are being funded through taxes and passage fees he is levying on the residents.

Pays much better than Assad does

According to data published by the Syrian Center for Human Rights, every fighter gets a monthly salary of $400, while married soldiers get an extra $50 per child and $100 per woman. Fighters who migrated to Syria from other countries get an additional $400 a month as a “migration payment.”

Compared to the salaries the average Syrian citizen earned under President Bashar Assad, these are excellent terms that are liable to lure plenty of young men who previously earned less than $150 a month into the organization.

By a rough calculation, the organization, which has some 20,000 fighters, needs some $100 million a year just to pay their salaries, and tens of millions of dollars more to buy weapons and maintain the areas it controls.

Since its revenues are estimated at $100 million a month, that leaves a huge surplus which is probably well invested outside the countries where the fighting is taking place, making one wonder what’s happened to all those international institutions whose job is to uncover international investments by terror groups.

The Islamic State is relying on the existing Syrian bureaucracies to maintain daily life, basic services and the economy. However, it’s been modifying these things to the rules of Islamic law, and is trying to eliminate the symbols of the regime.

For example, the Islamic State’s “education ministry” has issued a series of guidelines for schools in those areas under its control, forbidding them to teach music, art, history, social science, philosophy, psychology or Christianity.

The guidelines also require the deletion of any references to the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria’s official name), insisting it be replaced with the Islamic State.

Schools must remove all pictures deemed inappropriate by Islamic law and stop playing the national anthem. National studies are forbidden, since “a Muslim’s country is any place where religious law prevails.” Of course, it is forbidden to study Darwinism, because everything was created by Allah.

Chemistry and physics classes must emphasize that everything originates with God. Teachers are being required to undergo special training in Islamic regulations if they want to continue in their profession.

One can cluck one’s tongue anxiously about the Islamic State’s educational decrees, but a look at the educational systems in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia shows that such strict rules are not unique to Baghdadi’s marauders.

The ways of the Taliban in Afghanistan are still fresh in our memory, such as the ban on letting women study, the ban on singing, and more – including the barbaric executions of anyone who broke the rules of Sharia (Islamic law).

If not for the campaign against Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida that broke out because of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Taliban would have been able to continue doing as they pleased for many years. In fact, American oil companies considered the Taliban a stable, responsible party with whom one could sign agreements to lay oil pipelines from Turkmenistan to India and Pakistan, as the Bechtel Corporation planned to do in the 1990s.

Will West seek ‘moderate’ IS leaders?

Even today, at least part of the Taliban – the part the Americans call “moderate” – is considered a legitimate partner, worth having as part of the government to reduce the attacks against that government. One wonders if in Syria and Iraq, the West will not decide to concede to reality and look for “moderate” partners among the Islamic State’s leaders.

U.S. President Barack Obama has already taken military intervention in Syria off the agenda, and the military intervention in Iraq is reflected in training the Kurds and giving them weapons. No country has any desire to dig through Iraq’s western desert or to confront Russia, Iran or Syria. Who cares if the children of eastern Syria or western Iraq learn music and art? They’re better off learning how to stay alive before learning how to play the oud.

Even with regard to Afghanistan, the West wasn’t exactly shaken to the core because girls didn’t go to school or their parents were being beheaded. Given the conduct of Western countries in the past, one can assume that, as long as their interests aren’t harmed and their capitals not attacked, and as long as Obama has no strategy – as he admitted – for battling the Islamic State, the children in the group’s schools will continue to learn Islamic laws and live their lives without understanding the teachings of Darwin.

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