BEIRUT — The release over the weekend of four French journalists whom a rogue al-Qaida offshoot had held for months in Syria may indicate that the group is turning increasingly to ransom to finance its activities.
The French government has denied that it paid a ransom for the journalists, who were kidnapped in two separate incidents last summer. But two European intelligence agents involved in the cases of other hostages said they thought the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had received a sizable payment for releasing the journalists.
The payment was brokered by an unidentified Persian Gulf country that is widely thought to be Qatar, which has brokered and paid ransoms on behalf of hostages in three previous incidents, according to the European intelligence agents and confirmed by an Islamist who is familiar with ISIS’s inner workings.
The release of the French hostages came two weeks after ISIS released two Spanish journalists who had been held for seven months in a deal said to have been brokered by Spanish intelligence agents working out of southern Turkey.
France was roundly criticized last year for paying a reported 40 million euros — more than $55 million — to an al-Qaida franchise in Mali.
The European intelligence officials said ISIS’s interest in ransoming the captive journalists now might be related to its infighting with other Syrian rebel groups and its recent rejection by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri over its refusal to limit its activities to Iraq. The fighting and al-Zawahri’s rejection may have hurt its ability to raise money for its activities in Syria, analysts say.
“For six months there was no contact at all from ISIS about any of the foreign hostages, but after January, people working on the cases started getting offers of proof of life for their people,” said one of the Europeans, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work.
“These releases are a continuation of this contact as they reached out to two European countries (Spain and France) with a long history of paying ransom to al-Qaida groups. In both cases ransoms were paid. In the case of the French it appears to have been done indirectly by another country. But what’s clear is that when it comes to ransom demands something has changed for ISIS.”
A second intelligence contractor from the same European country called ransoms “part of the new dynamic.”
ISIS has been openly feuding with other Syrian rebel groups since January, and its interest in discussing ransom for its hostages came as its conflict with al-Qaida’s official Syria affiliate, the Nusra Front, intensified, according to a Syrian Islamist who is familiar with ISIS’s operations.
In recent months, Nusra has taken control of lucrative oil and gas fields formerly controlled by ISIS, while its break with al-Qaida’s leadership in March reduced its ability to raise money among long-standing jihadi networks in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“The hostages were a card the ISIS emirs waited to play,” said the Islamist, who has proved links to the group in the past and asked not to be identified for fear of ISIS and its enemies. “Now they’re surrounded by enemies and cut off from the sheiks in the Gulf who are telling everyone to donate to Nusra or Ahrar al Sham,” another Syrian rebel group.
The decision by al-Zawahri, who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan but still in control of a vast fundraising apparatus established during the 1980s to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to excommunicate ISIS probably has been painful for the group, according to Charles Lister, who studies jihadist groups for the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“Considering ISIS appears now to be losing the support of religious clerics formerly loyal to it, it seems quite likely any private sources of financial support it had abroad may also be dwindling,” Lister said. “Being associated with al-Qaida brings with it particular benefits for local jihadist organizations, and the loss of that is almost certain to result in negative repercussions, at least initially. Solid sources of finance are an existential necessity for insurgent and militant groups.”
Aymenn Tamimi, who studies Iraqi and Syrian jihadist groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said that while ISIS was hardly broke, because of its extensive fundraising and extortion operations in Iraq’s Anbar province, the loss of contributions from the Persian Gulf and cut in oil revenues had no doubt forced it consider new avenues for bringing in cash.
How serious the financial squeeze might be, however, is uncertain.
“It’s true they lost a good deal of private Gulf support but they definitely get loads of cash from extortion and the like in Iraq,” Tamimi said.
ISIS is now fighting on four fronts: against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad; against its onetime rebel allies, including Nusra; against the Iraqi government for control of Anbar province; and against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria.
The expanded combat — six months ago it was battling only Assad forces — has forced ISIS to look to new sources of financing, Lister said.
“Indications from Mosul suggest ISIS has re-expanded its extortion and protection-racket operations to as low down the commercial line as market and fruit sellers,” he said, referring to a city in Iraq where ISIS is active. “It’s also re-established its underground influence over the construction market, demanding ‘taxes’ in exchange for its agreement not to attack the involved companies’ assets.”
Lister said Iraqi intelligence officials had estimated that ISIS’s earnings from its Mosul operations ranged from $1 million to $8 million a month. “We’re still talking about a lot of money,” he said, though probably not enough to operate comfortably in both countries.