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The UN Security Council Is Trying to Cut Off the Islamic State's Funding — Again

A new resolution requires countries to implement asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargoes on anyone listed under a sanctions regime named for al Qaeda that has been rebranded to also reference the Islamic State.
December 18, 2015, 3:10pm
Photo by Jason Szenes/EPA

The United Nations Security Council on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution aimed at further pinching the financial resources available to the Islamic State (IS), and cajoled governments to stand up to their existing obligations to target terrorist financing.

The afternoon session was chaired by US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who was joined by finance ministers from most other members — a Council first. In a rare display of unity, the resolution was jointly drafted by Russian and American diplomats, who tabled the lengthy 28-page text earlier this week. IS, everyone agreed, needs to be put out of business.

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Reflecting on the shifting power rankings of global terror outfits, the council decided to change the name of a sanctions committee that for more than a decade bore only the terrorist organization al Qaeda's name. It will now be known instead as the "ISIL (Da'esh) and al-Qaida Sanctions List," leading with two alternative names of IS, which is also widely known as ISIS.

The resolution includes binding language requiring countries to implement asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargoes on anyone listed under the renamed sanctions regime. But in a sign of how difficult it is to translate such votes into results, the text also expressed "concern about the lack of implementation" of three similar resolutions dating to 1999, and noted that many countries failed to sufficiently report on what measures they had taken to comply with them.

"This resolution is a critical step, but the real test will be determined by actions we each take after adoption," said Lew. "We need meaningful implementation, coordination, and enforcement from each country represented here, and many others."

An additional and vexing new problem facing the Security Council is that, unlike terror groups of the past, IS controls large stretches of both Syria and Iraq from which it can extract cash through extortion and taxation. Though US officials say that the group enjoys the support of some donors, it doesn't rely on the largesse of foreign benefactors to the extent that al Qaeda did prior to the 9/11 terror attacks. As long as IS controls territory, completely extinguishing the group's funding sources is impossible.

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Related: Canadian Special Forces in Firefight With Islamic State Attackers Near Mosul

Estimates of how much — and exactly how — IS has profited vary. Despite disseminating videos of what appear to be the destruction of ancient ruins and historical artifacts, IS is believed to earn millions from their sale on the black market. In February, the Security Council passed a resolution banning the illicit trade in heritage objects originating from Syria.

US and other Western officials have long claimed that the bulk of the group's renewable streams of profit come from the illicit sale of oil, mostly from Syria. On Thursday, Lew put IS earnings from the trade at $500 million, and highlighted what he claimed was the destruction by US-led coalition airstrikes of almost 400 of the group's "oil tanker trucks" over the past month — a number that is slightly lower than the 500 "tanks for 'ISIS'" that the Syrian mission to the UN claims the Russian air force has destroyed in the country.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin offered his own revenue estimates for more mundane trades: $250 million from selling phosphates, $200 million from Rye, and $100 million from cement. He also singled out Turkey as a principal transport zone for oil shipments originating in IS-controlled territory.

Churkin told the council that IS was able to buy weapons, including rocket systems, and ammunition "through shell companies in a number of countries in Eastern Europe."

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"Most of the consignments are of Soviet design," he added.

Related: Saudi Arabia's New Islamic Military Alliance Isn't Going to Be Effective Any Time Soon

At a press conference following the vote, George Osbourne, the UK's chancellor of the exchequer, said his government was already changing its laws to accommodate the resolution. His French counterpart, Michel Sapin, cited anonymous prepaid cards as a particular problem. Terrorists, he said, "are almost always faster than us" at adopting new technologies.

"They just have this ability to just latch onto these new technologies and utilize them," said Sapin.

Withstanding prepaid cards, one of the central issues facing the UN is simply getting countries to provide the sanction committee with names that should be listed, as well as usable intelligence to determine how violations are taking place.

The resolution calls on countries to submit a report updating the sanctions committee no later than 120 days from Tuesday. Prior to that, within 45 days, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is requested to provide an update on how the UN is supporting member states in enforcing the resolution, and the latest available information on their illicit trade in oil, antiquities, and other sources of income.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford