Records show how Iraqi extremists withstood US anti-terrorism efforts
WASHINGTON — When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed command in 2010 of what would become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group already was a largely self-funded, corporation-style organization whose resilience allowed it to grow revenues even as it was targeted by counterterrorism operations.
The militant group al-Baghdadi inherited already had in place a sophisticated bureaucracy with middle managers who were almost obsessive about record-keeping. They detailed, for example, the number of wives and children each fighter had, to gauge compensation rates upon death or capture, and listed expenditures in neat Excel spreadsheets that noted payments to an “assassination platoon” and “Al Mustafa Explosives Company.” Income from the Sunni Muslim militants’ looting of Shiite Muslim-owned property was recorded as “spoils.”
By the time al-Baghdadi took charge, the group even had begun siphoning a share of Iraq’s oil wealth, opening gas stations in the north, smuggling oil and extorting money from industry contractors — enterprises that al-Baghdadi would build on and replicate as he expanded operations across the border into Syria, ultimately breaking from his al-Qaida roots and declaring himself emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Now al-Baghdadi’s ISIL has seized control of much of Iraq’s Sunni provinces, is consolidating its hold on two provinces in eastern Syria and is circling the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as 300 newly dispatched American military advisers arrive in Iraq to assess what the United States can do to stop its advance.
Insurgent records suggest that the United States will find it difficult to rout an organization whose structure and attention to detail allowed it to prosper even during the toughest U.S. counterterrorism efforts of the last decade. U.S. officials believed, incorrectly, that the group had been vanquished.
This rare, in-depth look into the seed money and organizational structure of the militant organization comes from the Department of Defense’s classified Harmony Database, a repository of more than a million documents gathered from Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones. Some 200 Iraq-related documents — personal letters, expense reports, membership rosters — were declassified in the past year through West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center for the use of RAND Corp. researchers looking into the evolution of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq, the precursors to ISIL. Some analysis of the documents, which haven’t yet been published, was discussed with McClatchy to lend context to the current crisis.
The documents provide a cautionary tale as the Iraqi government pleads for U.S. military assistance to beat back ISIL’s brazen new campaign. The records reveal that previous incarnations of ISIL have shown an extraordinary ability to regroup even after military defeats.
That’s the direct result of ISIL’s aggressive and diverse fundraising arm, said Patrick B. Johnston, a RAND Corp. expert on militant financing who’s analyzing the declassified documents and preparing them for book-length publication later this year.
Johnston said the lessons from the internal records were even timelier now that ISIL reportedly had made off with more than $420 million from banks in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell to ISIL’s control earlier this month. And that’s only part of the valuable assets the militants seized during their virtually unimpeded march across northern Iraq.
“They continued to raise more and more money over time, even amid the U.S. troop surge and the Sunni Awakening revolt of Iraqi Sunni tribes against the Islamic State, and that’s going to make it difficult for a limited intervention to do more than disrupt ISIL’s pursuit of its objective, which is war to control Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria to establish an Islamic state,” Johnston said. “If the past is prologue, intervention is likely to degrade ISIL militarily, but the funding is the prerequisite to being able to reconstitute itself as it did after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq.”
The documents also challenge popular narratives about the group, including that Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries were key contributors to the birth of ISIL — a claim that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently repeated. In fact, the intercepted documents show, outside donations amounted to only a tiny fraction — no more than 5 percent — of the group’s operating budgets from 2005 until 2010, when al-Baghdadi took over after the deaths of two superiors.
Mosul was the Islamic State’s fundraising nerve center for years before the city fell to ISIL this month, according to Johnston’s analysis of the documents. A key to understanding the city’s enduring importance to the group comes from a Mosul “administrative emir” whose meticulous records from August 2008 to January 2009 were seized and added to the database.
In accordance with the Islamic State’s business model, Johnston said, cells were required to send up to 20 percent of their income from local enterprises — such as kidnapping ransoms and extortion rackets — to the next level of leadership. Higher-ranking commanders would examine the revenues and redistribute the funds to provincial or local subsidiaries that were in dire straits or needed additional money to conduct attacks.
The records show that the Islamic State was dependent on the Mosul members for cash, which the leadership used to bail out struggling militants in the volatile provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin and even Baghdad.
“This was the area that was keeping the group afloat,” Johnston said. “Mosul was really the moneymaker.”
Reallocation and payroll costs — compensation to members and the families of deceased members — were by far the largest expenses for the Islamic State, accounting for as much as 56 percent of all payouts at certain points in time, according to the documents Johnston and colleagues are examining.
From the group’s standpoint, the militants got a good return on their investment: An analysis of the data found that an infusion of cash to a flagging cell resulted in a noticeable uptick in insurgent violence in the same area.
“These payments increased the rate of attacks in those sectors for up to four weeks,” Johnston said.
The declassified documents show, too, an organization that’s nimble enough to respond to unforeseen threats, such as the so-called “Sons of Iraq” campaign, in which the U.S. military enlisted Sunni tribesmen — including some who’d fought with the insurgency — to help combat al-Qaida-allied extremists. The strategy was heralded as a counterterrorism coup that helped to reduce violence, especially in perennially contested Anbar province, home to Fallujah, which fell to ISIL in January.
When it became apparent that the “apostates and Crusaders” were successfully enlisting tribal support against them, Johnston said, Islamic State commanders set up a new agency within the governing structure to woo back the leaders. Even these visits by members of the nascent “tribal committee” were recorded by the bookkeepers, who kept close track of the cash, Qurans and other gifts given to what they referred to as “VIPs” before writing reports to higher-ups about how receptive the tribes were to the overtures.
“The administrators went around meeting with local tribal leaders to gauge whether or not they could get their cooperation,” Johnston said.
Another widely held belief that’s refuted by the financial records is that Iraqi recruits flocked to the Islamic State for higher wages and steady jobs because they couldn’t make ends meet in Iraq’s war-ravaged economy. In the years for which financial records are available, the average Islamic State foot soldier earned a base salary of just $41 a month, far lower than blue-collar Iraq jobs such as a bricklayer making $150 a month, according to Johnston’s comparisons.
The low pay is even more striking against the background of the risk these new members incurred. In Anbar in 2005 and 2006, Islamic State fighters were 47 times more likely to die than the general population of men ages 18 to 48, according to the RAND analysis. The conclusions echo what counterterrorism experts have long suspected: that members are so ideologically driven that economic incentives to stop the flow of fighters aren’t likely to have much impact.
“The documents lay bare the salaries to be paid to Islamic State members, regardless of their nationality, educational attainment, previous experience in jihad or other qualifications,” Johnston said. “The salaries may have been purposely set low to ensure only committed jihadis would join the movement.”
Personal letters among the documents show that the militants — best known for beheading videos and mass executions — weren’t immune to the usual administrative nuisances and employee gripes that come with running a business. The correspondence includes excuses for delays with “the mail,” which suggests the documents were hand-couriered to evade electronic interception. One administrator complained that a lack of built-in oversight could tempt members into graft; he proposed a restructuring.
“The volume of correspondence we had access to was predominated by these really kind of banal letters, such as informing on a colleague who was late getting his report in,” Johnston said.
Because the documents obtained by RAND end in 2010, there’s still no complete picture of how al-Baghdadi has built on the business model to finance his group’s current involvement in Syria and Iraq. Estimates of the group’s current war chest go all the way to $2 billion, factoring in new revenue from Syrian natural resources and other battlefield spoils, making ISIL the richest militant group in the world.
Charles Lister, who researches extremist groups as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said there was no evidence that foreign donors such as Gulf nations became any more important to the group after 2010; he dismissed that idea as stemming from a “political context of deep suspicion and paranoia.”
Lister said the Syrian conflict gave ISIL increased earning potential, but he added that al-Baghdadi oversaw “a far more impatient organization” with a new focus on grabbing land rather than setting up sustainable economic hubs like Mosul across the border.
The group has suffered setbacks since its “more kinetic” turn, Lister said, noting that ISIL was forced to withdraw from Idlib province in northwestern Syria. Even so, the group still has access to oil resources in northeast Syria and, with its newly won prizes in Iraq, appears comfortable enough to put money concerns aside and focus on the fight.
“Perhaps this was because Baghdadi re-evaluated his priorities,” Lister said of the tactical shift. “ISIL already had sufficient money behind it, so what was the need to focus only on earning more?”