As published in the Sunday Times
Stem clandestine oil sales and hit Isis where it hurts: in its wallet
In the 1990s the government acted to crush the IRA’s many illegal funding sources, and this played a large part in forcing it to the negotiating table. As the IRA discovered: “To wage war, you need first of all money; second, you need money, and third, you also need money”.
The government should ponder this as it decides on its strategy for defeating Isis. Parliament has granted its assent for military action, but what was apparent from the debate is that there is as yet no realistic plan to eliminate the jihadists.
The 70,000 ground troops — the “bogus battalions” as they were described by the chairman of the defence select committee — cannot defeat Isis. They are too fragmented, too dispersed and at the moment too intent on fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
But there are ways to hit Isis where it hurts the most: in its wallet. Without money, it will not be able to pay its fighters, it will not be able to buy weapons and ammunition and it will not be able to fund its operations.
According to the Rand Corporation think tank, Isis’s biggest costs are fighters’ wages, which the US Treasury estimates at some $360m (£238m). It is a huge sum and is critical to the military success of Isis.
While much of the Isis propaganda focuses on foreign fighters, its military backbone comes from local Sunnis, often drawn from extremely poor backgrounds. For them a few hundred dollars a month is an enormous attraction.
The money has come from many sources, creating an income thought to be in the billions. It is this revenue that has sustained Isis, allowing it to expand and arm its forces.
Oil is the biggest source of income. It is thought that Isis produces between 34,000 and 40,000 barrels a day. This adds up to about half a billion dollars a year in oil revenues.
We need to cut off Isis’s ability to sell oil. It moves the bulk of it — and gets the bulk of its income — over the Turkish border. Up to $1bn of oil sales is thought to have crossed this frontier so far. Turkey is a member of Nato and is applying to become a member of the EU. It is time its actions started to match its responsibilities.
It is not acceptable for a Nato member to offer succour to our enemies. The border between Turkey and Isis-controlled territory must be closed and properly policed, ideally by Nato.
Similarly we should make it plain to the Kurdish groups that have traded Isis oil that this is unacceptable, and the Russians should do the same with President Assad. Oil is by no means the only source of Isis funding, however. It has received many tens of millions from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
It needs to be made clear that those countries that wish to have a relationship with us — whose dignitaries wish to bank with Coutts and live in Knightsbridge — must stop the flow of funds to Isis.
All this money passes through banks. Banking regulation in Kuwait and Qatar is weak, without comprehensive checks on whether money is being paid out to jihadist groups abroad. Both states have become clearing houses for those seeking to fund Isis. This cannot continue.
Isis also makes money from the sale of pillaged antiquities. We should make it very difficult indeed for anybody in the civilised world to trade in these blood-soaked artifacts, if only to drive down the price and deny Isis their evil gains.
That pushes the group back to taking money from the population it controls. In Isis territory, everyone pays “taxes” to it. The farmers pay for the privilege of collecting their own harvest, the smallest businessmen pay $2 a month to operate and Christians pay heavy taxes simply to survive.
But these extortions have two drawbacks. First, they are barely enough to pay the Isis army. Second the harsher the demands of Isis, the more obvious it is that the group is a theocratic protection racket.
As we shut off Isis’s money, we will find that the more its military machine stalls, the more likely it is we can force this medieval monster into a spiral of decline.
So far our bombing has served merely to double recruitment. A co-ordinated military, financial, political and diplomatic strategy may just reverse that.
Cicero realised millennia ago that “the sinews of war” are “infinite money”. It is high time Isis learnt this lesson the hard way. The very hard way.