The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Thursday aimed at choking off funding for the Islamic State terror group by targeting the sale of oil and antiquities from territory it controls in Iraq and Syria and ransom payments for hostages it has taken.
The Islamic State — which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh in Arabic — is already listed as an al Qaeda-affiliated group under previous UN sanction measures, though al Qaeda disavowed its ties to the group last year after an internal dispute. The new, Russian-authored resolution clarified bans pertaining to oil sales, funding, and the payment of ransoms to explicitly cite the Islamic State and the al Qaeda faction Jabhat al-Nusra. The resolution also included a binding prohibition on the sale of illicit artifacts from Syria, modeled on an existing ban in Iraq.
"This is a resolution that tries to squeeze, stress, and eliminate the financial support for terrorism, specifically for Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra and all the people they are dealing with," Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told reporters following the vote.
The resolution, reportedly in the works since the fall, was lent a sense of urgency last week following the release of a video depicting the Islamic State's brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who had been captured in December within Syria. He was burned alive in a cage after being doused in gasoline.
Negotiations over the resolution among the Security Council's five permanent members — elected members were only able to suggest small additions — reflected unity in opposition to the Islamic State, which has seized large portions of both Iraq and Syria in the past year. Last week, an American official close to the discussions said that the US team had "worked relatively constructively" with Russian diplomats, with whom they have otherwise sparred repeatedly over the Kremlin's support for Ukrainian separatist rebels and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking at the council, United States Ambassador Samantha Power emphasized that crimes committed by the Syrian government must not be lost in the consensus against the Islamic State, whose actions are almost universally abhorred.
"There is no better recruiting tool for ISIL than the atrocities of the Assad regime, which has dropped barrels bombs on civilians, used chemical weapons on its own people, and tortured tens of thousands more in its prisons," Power said.
Before a US-led coalition began attacking Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria last year, the UN estimated the group was earning as much as $1.6 million each day from the sale of oil pumped in its territory. Air strikes on refineries and rigs are believed to have substantially reduced the group's capacity to collect oil.
"Even if we've gone from $2 million to half a million dollars per day, that's still a lot of money that's going into ISIS's coffers," Jimmy Gurule, professor of law at Notre Dame University and an expert on terrorism financing, told VICE News.
The resolution requires nations to inform the UN "within 30 days of the interdiction in their territory of any oil, oil products, modular refiners, and related material being transferred to or from ISIL or ANF [Jabhat al-Nusra]." But rather than require countries to stop or seize vehicles, aircraft, and tankers that could be carrying goods out of territory under militant control, the text merely "encourages" them to take appropriate steps in accordance with international law to prevent and disrupt this activity.
Echoing previous measures, the resolution reaffirmed that member states are obliged to "freeze without delay funds and other financial assets or economic resources" connected to terror groups and those that facilitate them.
It also noted that the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah "are generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items from archaeological sites, museums libraries, archives and other sites in Iraq and Syria."
The sale of illicit artifacts is part of an unregulated black market that pre-existed the Islamic State's rise in Syria, but which has now become an integral source of funding for the insurgency.
American officials estimate that sales of stolen Syrian antiquities have surpassed $100 million annually. Syria's government blames neighboring countries, mainly Turkey, for allowing artifacts to travel across their shared border. Following the vote, Syrian Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari said that he had little hope that the Turkish government would abide by the resolution, and claimed that it had ignored previous binding texts aimed at stopping the flow of foreign fighters and weapons into conflict areas.
"Terrorists groups did not acquire the weapons from outer space and did not finance their criminal activities from selling flowers," Jaafari remarked.
The resolution also reaffirmed existing prohibitions on ransom payments to groups listed on UN sanctions lists, and specifically reminded member states "that this obligation applies to ISIL and ANF."
While the US and United Kingdom refuse to make ransom payments in exchange for hostages, several European countries, including permanent Security Council member France, are believed to have either permitted ransom payments or paid ransoms themselves to secure the release of citizens held by the Islamic State. Council diplomats told VICE News that while this disparity is recognized by member states, it was not stressed during negotiations.
Local civilians in Iraq and Syria are also subject to routine extortion, kidnappings, and ransom demands. Last year, the UN estimated that the Islamic State was earning between $96,000 to $123,000 daily from ransom payments.
Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University who has written on the question of hostage payments, told VICE News that the Islamic State's dissemination of graphic executions of hostages has the effect of publicizing and personalizing captives and compounding the dilemmas faced by their governments.
"Technology brings these hostages as identifiable victims to the whole world, so it changes the emotional balance, but it doesn't ultimately change the moral calculus," he said. "It is totally understandable that if there is an identifiable person, you would do what you can to help them. But that's still the wrong thing to do, because it is going to endanger more people in the long run, and more lives will be lost."
"It may be better if this were made more public — if the Security Council took notice that certain countries have paid ransoms to terrorists," Singer added.