In the last year, a once-obscure extremist group has overrun some of Iraq’s major cities, seized control of oil wells, industries and banks and emerged as the world’s richest and most feared terrorist force.
Despite nine months and $2.44 billion in U.S. airstrikes against the fighters and their oil facilities and smuggling networks, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has proven to be as resilient financially as it’s been militarily.
The group that President Barack Obama dismissed in January 2014 as a junior varsity team last year seized an estimated $675 million from banks, plus $145 million in oil sales and ransom payments and tens of millions more from other commercial enterprises, looting and extortion, according to U.S. Treasury and United Nations figures.
“This isn’t your average terrorist group operating from your average safe haven,” said Juan Zarate, a former assistant secretary of Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes who spent years targeting al-Qaeda funding. “They have access to oil in Iraq and Syria; access to major population centers; access to banks, antiquities and smuggling groups — all of that allows them to be more agile and have access to more capital and resources than your average terrorist group.”