When you think of ISIS, forget the image of balaclava-clad men, with kalashnikovs screaming “Allahu Akbar”. Think of a carefully managed startup that has, like other successful companies, lured international investors, diversified its income and widened its outreach. Just like any startup runs on equity and investment, this terrorist organisation also obtained funds to organise its structure and plan operations.
If ISIS Inc. was headquartered in Silicon Valley, it would be considered one of the top private companies in America. Based on even conservative estimates, last year the group controlled assets in excess of $2 trillion, with an annual income amounting to $2.9 billion, according to Thomson Reuters. That’s more revenue than the retailer J Crew and the household appliance corporation, Conair, earn a year.
Yet, in defeating ISIS, it’s important to dispel short-term solutions, particularly those that fall under the sway of “retribution” such as mass bombing. Sanctions and intense warfare alone won’t work, because ISIS thrives on the failure of Middle Eastern governments. To beat ISIS, governments must first address President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria as part of the problem. This is a mess born of the Iraq war and the Syrian civil war, the brutality and sectarianism of which has become a recruiting tool for the Islamic State. “Assad is not a sideshow,” says Emile Hokayem in this report. “He is at the center of this massive dilemma.”
Take ISIS’s authority over oil, for starters. It is by far the most lucrative commodity for the group. It is the “black gold that funds Isis’ black flag” and not only fuels the war machine, but also provides electricity and gives the jihadis critical leverage against their neighbours. Yet, blindly bombing ISIS’s oil reserves could actually help it more than it could hurt it by disrupting the livelihood of those who relied on oil trade. As Hassan Hassan, Chatham House associate fellow, writes:
Airstrikes disrupted this wartime economy and many families, who continued to buy oil from its new owners, ISIS, increasingly found it difficult to find alternative means to survive. This pushed some families to send their sons to join ISIS as the only way to generate a monthly income, according to several individuals living under ISIS.
The depletion of Syria’s ageing oilfields are, alone, containing ISIS to some degree. The group’s need for fuel for military operations also means there’s less to sell in the market.
It’s too late to expect that freezing the assets and halting the sale of weapons to those countries that have supported ISIS will stunt the organisation’s power. The jihadist group has already become immune to international sanctions.
Not only has it infiltrated every aspect of the economy, including the banking system (for example, more than 20 Syrian financial institutions continue to operate in ISIS-held territory, according to Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Counterterrorism program), it has also been making millions for years simply through a string of illegal activities (think: extortion through illegal taxes, and kidnap and ransom payments, selling sex slaves and plundering of antiquities excavated from ancient palaces and archaeological sites).
So any optimism that ISIS will have financial oversight is short-lived. In fact, “blocking the assets that fill ISIS’ coffers would mean rethinking the world’s economy,” says Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, an impossible feat considering the group has already exploited the underbelly of the financial system.
So how do we bankrupt ISIS, considering all the above?
Forget the strategy that addresses the symptoms not the disease. Indeed, as Emad Mostaque, strategist at Ecstrat tells Rebel Economy:
Our governments guarantee us safety from political violence, so when political violence is introduced into public life, governments typically over react and expend valuable resources fighting a small, hard-to-hit enemy.
This is why the war on terror has been a resounding failure, spending $2 trillion, killing 2 million civilians and seeing the number of enemy recruits going from under 1,000 to over 100,000 in 14 years.
Instead, there should be more focus on a long-term option that addresses grave unemployment (remember, ISIS thrives on the Arab world’s failures to provide to the people and relies on unemployed youths for new recruits). This means providing people with opportunities to enter competitive, labour intensive jobs, within blue-collar industries and prevent the draw to radicalism. It is a strategy for economic reform that critically channels most of the gains to the bottom 80%. The summary of this five-fold plan, by Middle East analyst Nathan Field, is necessary reading for understanding why ISIS continues to recruit and grow stronger.
In the end, there’s many things to be done:
Focus on resolving the Syria crisis as a whole and life after the Assad regime
Get the region to think differently about jobs for youths to help stem the flow of disenfranchised young people to ISIS
Targeted attacks against ISIS to limit their growth, and other sanctions
Cyber war on the ISIS propaganda machine to mitigate their message
There’s also a radical option, more in line with the rebel fighters of Libya. Train Syrian refugees in Turkey and other parts of Europe in the art of sabotage and send them back in as the Resistance. The most embarrassing problem for ISIS is their own “people” striking back at them. Bankrupting ISIS, a terror group which has further reach than any group before it, can only happen if the entire structure collapses, and that starts from within.
In the midst of the worst recession in America since 1929, Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Fed was asked simply, ‘When will this end?’.
This was his response:
The lesson of history is that you do not get a sustained economic recovery as long as the financial system is in crisis.
Sounds logical. Especially coming from the man who was considered the most powerful person in the U.S. working to save the economy, and eventually he did.
Yet, apply this logic to Egypt, which has for so long languished in its political mess, and you see it doesn’t fit. Policies have been made and then broken, currency devaluations have been enforced, slowed and then prevented, and interest rates have been held and occasionally cut, and still reserves are pretty much where they were four years ago – sitting at just over $16 billion, enough to cover about three months of imports—the minimum the IMF considers advisable.
Up till now, Egyptian tourism has survived big setbacks. If there was any trouble in the desert or along the Red Sea, it was small, and tourists were not the targets (at least, under Sisi.) Yet, memories of an Islamist uprising in the 1990s that took years for then President Hosni Mubarak to crush have been aroused of late. In September, Egyptian security forces mistakenly bombed a convoy of Mexican tourists in the western desert while pursuing militants. Last year, the bombing of a tourist bus in Sinai killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian.
The problem now is that Egypt’s economy is much weaker and cannot sustain a drop in foreign currency. Foreign direct investment (FDI) amounted to $6.4 billion in the last fiscal year (from the financial year running July until June), and the government is hoping (unrealistically) for $10 billion this year. Unemployment has hovered at a record high of over 12 percent since the beginning of 2011 and the biggest issue, the current-account deficit, is still high. That’s because Egypt is still spending a lot more (on oil, wheat, cars, metal and other goods totaling roughly $60.8 billion) than it is exporting (just $22 billion last year.) And that’s been happening for more than ten years.
Unlike the 1990s, Egypt’s economy is in a much more precarious position.
Take these graphs, from Capital Economics, on the number of tourists flying to Egypt and the foreign currency reserve level:
According to estimates from Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics, export revenues (because tourist receipts are counted as a service export) could fall by as much as $3.5 billion, or a massive 1.3 percent of GDP, over the next year. That is a huge chunk out of the tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of Egypt’s GDP already and 1.3 million jobs. It’s especially bad because the Red Sea resort towns of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada were among the most successful tourist sites, even more so than the desert destinations. Daily occupancy rates reach more than 70 percent here at the start of June. It even prompted the tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou to tell Reuters this in September:
“I will focus on the bulk of tourist movement. While desert tourism is important, the highest figure for it was 350 thousand (people a year). Sharm El Sheikh, on the other hand, received more than 4 million tourists at some point, on its own,” he said.
“I am going to work on everything related to those areas, from securing them and all else.”
Good job securing that…
The country is back to square one having barely recovered from the ‘second’ revolution of 2013, let alone the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising of 2011. And, somewhat more unsettling is the risk to the neighboring Suez Canal, the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia and one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency.
Despite security efforts, there have been multiple attacks on the Suez Canal. In 2013, an Islamist terrorist group called Al-Furqan took responsibility for hitting merchant vessels passing through the Canal with rocket propelled grenades. This is a clear video of the attack, which happened in broad daylight:
It was the second attack in just under three days (the first was allegedly under the cover of darkness), and demonstrates one example of how Egyptian security forces have taken a reactive approach to military threats, rather than mitigating the risk. According to Stephen Starr, a journalist that wrote a summary of the security risks to the Canal, “the threat of serious attacks by militants—operations that could sink a major vessel and thus block the canal—is a real one.”
President Sisi has his eye on a mega $8-billion expansion of the canal that aims to double daily traffic by 2023 and increase annual revenues to more than $13 billion by 2023, from just over $5 billion in 2014. Yet, none of this is meaningful if the government continues to resist structural reform which has left the economy floundering for years. It is also resisting the simple fact that there was likely a bomb on flight.
Egypt will certainly need international support once again as foreign direct investment dries up, but officials are alienating themselves by mismanaging the crash inquiry. It is no secret that European countries are among the heavyweight influencers on the IMF board, a organization that has had on-and-off talks with Egypt for years. So, if Egypt really wants to dispel concerns from its donors, in the hope of sourcing funds, transparent investigations are required.