February 20, 2015


The cracks in Islamic State's business plan are starting to show (Ora Szekely, February 20, 2015, Reuters)

Islamic State's expansion so far has been based heavily on extortion and theft. Using revenue from the oil wells it captured in eastern Syria in June 2014, along with money raised by looting in Mosul, supplemented by funding from ransoms paid by governments for its hostages, Islamic State was able to hire lots of fighters very quickly by paying top salaries. But revenues from the oil wells have dropped (due both to U.S. bombing and falling global oil prices), and with the tragic death of American aid worker Kayla Mueller earlier this month, Islamic State has executed what is likely its last foreign hostage, potentially eliminating a key source of its funding.

The result may be that Islamic State has reached an important crossroads. The strategy that it has relied on so far to fuel its expansion is becoming increasingly untenable. If Islamic State is going to hold on to its recent gains, it has some policy changes to make.

All militant groups need a range of resources -- from guns and money to recruits and political legitimacy -- to accomplish their goals. Broadly speaking, the strategies they use to acquire these resources fall into three categories: theft, barter, or gift. Some militias steal what they need, looting farmers' crops or kidnapping journalists for ransom. Others rely on barter, offering their services as a fighting force to a state in return for money and weapons. Groups employing the gift option try to convince both local constituents and potential state sponsors to voluntarily provide political and material support for its cause. The vast majority of militant groups use a mixture of all three approaches, though many emphasize one approach.

So far, Islamic State has mostly relied on the first approach -- theft. But using this strategy will become increasingly difficult; the resources it has already stolen -- oil, cash from local banks, even hostages -- aren't easily renewable. And, as the Islamic State leadership is beginning to find, brutalizing civilians makes acquiring broad local support very difficult.

The impossibility of sustaining a state on the basis of Islamicism is why Samuel Huntington was wrong.

Posted by at February 20, 2015 6:15 PM

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