ISIS is Running Out of Money

By Michael Antuono, International Business Writer

ISIS emerged in Iraq in 2004 as a splinter group of al-Qaeda, founded by a fundamentalist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group later split from al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden  and redirected their aims towards establishing a new caliphate in the region. Under their new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they merged with another militant group in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra, expanding their reach even further. From here, they began their mission of conquering land for the intended caliphate.

Through 2014, ISIS quickly spread through both Iraq and Syria, capturing vital territory throughout both regions. By 2015, the group controlled most of the northern and eastern regions of Syria and the northern and western portions of Iraq. Specifically, ISIS took control of Mosul, to serve as their Iraqi base, and Raqqa in Syria, which would serve as the group’s de facto capital.

These portions of Iraq and Syria are rich in oil fields, with infrastructure already built to extract it. ISIS consequently began funding their operations primarily through the extraction and sale of this oil, becoming the most well-funded terror group in history. With anywhere between 2 and 6 million people living under ISIS-imposed Sharia Law, they have an ample market within their borders, as well as without.

It has been estimated that ISIS was making around $2 million a day from oil sales,  conservatively. Aside from this source of funding, ISIS has pulled in a significant amount of money from ransoms from kidnapping. A 2014 New York Times investigation found that since 2008, al Qaeda and its affiliates had received $125 million from ransoms, including $66 million in 2013. Another major business for the Islamic State has been selling stolen artifacts and antiques from the region. They encourage groups to dig within their borders for these goods, and are allowed to sell them as long as they are given a cut. Finally, they force the residents to pay “taxes,” or rather, extort them regularly. Combined, ISIS has had the funding to continue their operations independently for years.

US-led coalitions have since begun targeting key ISIS assets, primarily oil fields and wells, as well as refineries. Coordinated air campaigns have consequently destroyed significant portions of their financial infrastructure, which includes over 7000 fighting positions, nearly 6000 buildings, over 1200 oil rigs, and more.

The effects of the air campaign had not been fully realized until recently, when news emerged that ISIS was struggling to pay its remaining fighters. Reports have shown that they have seen significant forces abandon recently, or resort to desperate measures in an effort to be paid. Raqqa residents have stated that fighters have offered to smuggle residents out of the city for minimal cost.

Other signs of ISIS’s newfound lack of funding exist as well. They have been unable to repair key infrastructure in Raqqa. The Islamic State warned Sunday that the nearby Tabqa Dam would collapse, which has since caused the departure of even more fighters disguised of residents.

With the Islamic State’s funding on its way out, countries are beginning to find leverage to force the group to release its stranglehold on Iraq and Syria. Iraqi and Kurdish forces have continued their efforts to liberate Mosul whileUS coalition forces have continued their efforts in the air. With draining capital, the collapse of ISIS could be closer than once thought.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 4th print edition.

Contact Michael at


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