The Islamic State's staggering wealth amassed through a "diversified portfolio" of revenue streams will make it extraordinarily hard for the US and other countries to stop or cripple the group, experts said today in response to a new United Nations report.
The UN Security Council report, released last week, outlines the history and current power of the Islamic State and the al Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria, and advises member nations on a range of possible sanctions that could weaken the groups, including placing members on sanctions lists and asking neighboring countries to seize oil tankers traveling through Islamic State-controlled areas.
But the real message of the report was in the detailed outline of what the groups look like now: well-financed, slickly-produced, and highly-trained organizations that, in the Islamic State's case, have the money and weapons to continue fighting at its current pace for up to two years.
The report says that at this point, the Sunni Islamist group could be making anywhere from $850,000 to $1.6 million per day from oil seized illegally from fields outside of Mosul this summer, which is then exported through third party tankers and pipelines. The report estimates that the group sells around 47,000 barrels per day at $18 to $35 per barrel on the black market.
But the Islamic State also enjoys other revenue streams, including "several million dollars" per month from extorting local businesses in its territories, profits from looting antiquities, including those from archeological sites, and $35 to $45 million in the last year from kidnapping ransom payments, according to the report.
"What the report hammers home is that these guys — the Islamic State certainly and al Nusra to a smaller extent — are better resourced than adversaries we've faced in the past," Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told VICE News. "They have a little more meat on the bones."
The US is already trying to hamper these groups' illegal oil sales, Berman said, but that alone won't be enough to stop them.
"They are not so vulnerable that we can squeeze one asset and they'll fold," he said. "Their portfolio is diversified enough."
The report also detailed the enormous cache of weapons the Islamic State has amassed from either stealing or collecting abandoned arms from the Iraqi military, or obtained through illegal smuggling. The group now has its hands on an array of assault rifles, machine guns, man portable air defense systems, field and anti-aircraft guns, missiles, rockets, rocket launchers, artillery, aircraft, tanks, and high mobility multipurpose military vehicles, according to the report.
The group is also particularly adept at making and innovating its own weapons, including making more dangerous versions of improvised explosive devices to target Iraqi army vehicles, the report says.
'What the report hammers home is that these guys — the Islamic State certainly and al Nusra to a smaller extent — are better resourced than adversaries we've faced in the past.'
The UN also noted that the Islamic State likely doesn't have the capability to produce any chemical or nuclear weapons, though it does have access to sites where chemical weapons have been produced and stored. The group may also have the ability to create biological weapons at facilities at the University of Mosul.
But weaponry is just one facet of the Islamic State threat. The report also points to the group's "toxic ideology" disseminated worldwide through "slick digital" propaganda.
"The Islamic State is far more advanced in using the full range of media to advance its ideology than any previous movement," Anthony Cordesman, chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. "The group has sophistication and strategic communications that we haven't seen before."
The report concludes with a slew of suggestions for member nations to curb the jihadist groups' activities. These include countries placing individuals involved in Islamic State and al Nusra on sanction lists, using Interpol lists to try and stop foreign fighters from traveling back and forth, and tightening control of oil flow between Islamic State territories in Iraq and Syria and neighboring countries.
The report admits the sanctions will not completely work to hamper the groups' movements, and a multilateral approach is needed to combat both organizations.
The conclusion of the report may seem tepid, Cordesman said, but it has to be to make it broadly palatable to countries around the world.
'The Islamic State is far more advanced in using the full range of media to advance its ideology than any previous movement.'
"The countermeasures are obviously ones designed to be recommended on an international level. The report doesn't talk about military operations, doesn't talk about aid, doesn't talk about dealing with Syrian rebels or how to aid Iraq, and these are all areas where a UN report wouldn't get into detail," Cordesman said. "It's not for the kind of military measures the US and its allies are caught up in."
Cordesman pointed out that the UN focuses attention on al Nusra, which continues to be a threat, and said that the majority of Muslim leaders around the world disagree with the Islamic State's ideology and have taken steps, including sending letters, to dissuade them. But more could be done.
"When you talk about degrading or destroying the Islamic State, if you can't address the broader problem of extremism and violence in the region, then getting rid of one movement to have it replaced by another is scarcely going to be a positive step," he said.
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