A picture taken with a mobile phone on January 3, 2014 shows people in a street with empty bullets on the ground following fighting between Islamist jihadists and Iraqi special forces in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
The insurgent group ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has been wreaking military havoc across Northern Iraq. In recent days the Sunni group has taken the major oil-trading hub of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as Tikrit, and is moving south toward Baghdad.
All of that military action is causing jitters in financial markets around the world, as well as driving up world oil prices. Another financial impact from ISIL’s rapid advance—the group is getting a lot richer.
Reports from the region, quoting the Iraqi provincial governor, say ISIL fighters raided Mosul’s central bank as they took the city. They may have stolen $425 million or more. They reportedly looted other banks’ vaults of cash and gold bullion as well.
“For this organization, this is a major windfall,” said Rick Brennan, a retired Army officer and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Brennan said that will buy a lot for ISIL: “arms, ammunition, paying for foreign fighters, increasing salaries. It enables them to transform themselves from just an insurgent group, to almost having a small army, which is something that we haven’t seen before.”
ISIL is rumored to pay its fighters well, to provide death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers, and to pay both more, and more regularly, than the armies of Iraq and Syria, said Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, who was an advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq.
“Every war takes finance, and they’re quite good at extracting finance to fund their war,” Long said of ISIL, whose activities he’s been following since the mid-2000s.
“These guys are good businessmen, they made a lot of money from seizing various legal and illegal enterprises,” said Long. “They kept very good, detailed records. They had very sophisticated ways of not only taxation, but also stealing cars and reselling them in Kurdistan, where they knew they could get better prices.”
ISIL forces have overrun oil pipelines and export facilities in Iraq and Syria, and smuggling that oil is one source of revenue for the group. But ISIL is still not considered capable of attacking or seizing Iraq’s major oil fields, which are defended by the Iraqi government in the South, and the Kurds in the north.
And Raad Alkadiri, senior director at UpStream Research/IHS Energy, says that even with hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal, ISIL would be hard-pressed to actually operate oil production facilities, or find the technical workers it would need to do so. And even if ISIL could get significant oil-pumping and refining underway, the group would not easily find customers in the region or outside it, who would be willing to transport or purchase any oil it tried to export.