Who funds ISIS? Qatar and state-sponsoring allegations

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Within a few months, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has advanced its objectives in a fast and radical pace. Officially introduced as ISIS during 2013, it wasn’t until June of the current year that the group’s mobilization formally began. It is for this reason that its daily appearance in national and international media is not surprising, especially considering that the organization’s defeat is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage. This has been partly the result of its rapid expansion across Iraqi and Syrian territories and its worldwide influence, appealing to far more Western individuals than probably any other terrorist group. Evidently, these goals could not have materialized without a strong financial subsistence. The latter fact has generated suspicions respecting the active participation of Middle Eastern states in supporting ISIS, one of them being Qatar.[i] Conceding that the means through which the organization has gained power have been numerous, the group’s funding sources are worth analyzing to determine the role that Qatar has played in this context.

ISIS funding

How does ISIS fund its operations? Latest events clearly indicate that its financial basis rests chiefly upon oil. Controlling areas rich in petroleum within Iraq and Syria, the organization accumulates high revenues from smuggling oil into bordering states, roughly producing more than USD 1 million per day.[ii] For a while, these activities were carried out mostly in Turkey. Considering that oil is sold at approximately USD 2.30 per liter (and USD 9 a gallon), selling it in the black market at USD 1.35 became highly profitable for the organization, as well as for the middlemen involved in the transaction.[iii] These undertakings decreased with the application of strict measures by the Turkish government to discontinue the supply and demand of the illicit trade.[iv]

In any case, the trade of oil extracted from Iraqi and Syrian wells overtaken by ISIS has not been limited to Turkey. By extension, this has affected other countries sharing a border with Iraq and/or Syria, being the case of Jordan and Iran, using Anbar, Kurdistan and Mosul as transportation routes to move the product.[v] Furthermore, the organization has been able to sell the oil within Kurdish communities overtaken by the terrorists. Notwithstanding the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) numerous efforts to fight the extremists, soldiers and middlemen have apparently facilitated the development of such activities in areas controlled by the group.[vi]

Moreover, joint actions taken by the KRG and the United States to increase border security have been obstructed by a constant change in routes, making it hard to establish how and where the oil is trafficked.[vii] However, airstrikes launched by the United States since the first weeks of September have been able to downgrade the group’s earnings. According to the International Energy Agency in Paris,[viii] targeting wells, refineries, and convoys, caused daily oil production to drop from 70000 (in August) to 20000 (by mid-October) and, likewise, the 120 loaded trucks that moved 20000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq’s Ajeel oil field were narrowed down to 10 for the transportation of 2000 barrels a day.[ix]

Undoubtedly, President Barack Obama’s campaign against ISIS has frustrated the terrorists’ goals by reducing their strength. Yet even if the organization’s income has relied largely on the oil business, the last one is most certainly not its only financial source. By now, it has become clear that ISIS extorts and commits other types of organized crime to fund itself;[x] but, more significantly, its reign of terror has been endorsed by foreign support. Although this may not be its primary source of funding, the political implications that come with it beg to be assessed.    

Foreign support 

Claims of foreign support have been contested at an international level, especially because the group’s flow of cash cannot be traced back to determine if the organization has obtained funds from private or public entities. While the fact that individuals or companies are sustaining the extremists’ activities is grave enough, the potential direct participation of states is much more severe, embodying an obstacle in the fight against ISIS, and intensifying an already present security threat.

Private sympathizers have helped finance the organization – at least to some extent; Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Arabian followers, among others, have adhered to this trend.[xi] Whereas evidence of governments’ involvement in financing terrorism has not been found, questions on whether states are connected to these activities or are turning a blind eye to them have risen from this predisposition. Additionally, the desire to oust Bashar al-Assad from his long-standing power in Syria has urged individuals who perceive ISIS fighters as the only ones capable of intimidating the regime to fund the terrorist group,[xii] overlooking, of course, the consequences. Though willingly funding the enemy could seem inconceivable, the idea of instituting a Sunni caliphate might be attractive for states or individuals who share the same religion. After all, Sunni Islam is the largest Islamic religious branch within the Muslim population.

Yet wariness regarding state sponsoring finds its roots in governments’ vague statements and actions. A key actor for the disempowerment of the organization, Iran, has changed its standpoint towards the struggle against the group in a relatively short time. Initially refusing to join international forces, albeit its largely Shia population, the country has now decided to take action, and has even openly exposed its role in the war.[xiii] Likewise, Turkey has been skeptical about its participation in the operations led by the United States. On one hand, Turkey has agreed to participate in the coalition; on the other, it has been reluctant to interfering in the areas besieged by ISIS – which by itself has provoked domestic and international discord.[xiv] This does not absolutely suggest that Iran and Turkey might be covertly supporting ISIS; however, the situation has accentuated doubts on governments’ stance in the fight. 

Is Qatar funding ISIS?

Qatar has not gone unnoticed in this context. Encouraging more controversial arguments than other states, the country’s linkage to ISIS has been closely scrutinized. Wittingly or not, the country engulfs a great number of private suppliers, superseding wealthy individuals of other origins among the ones who have contributed with ISIS growth;[xv] and, together with Saudi Arabia, it has funded dubious Sunni Islamist groups in the past.[xvi] Also, the counter-terrorist policies implemented by the Qatari government have not reached the aspired goals. Along with Kuwait, elusive legislative measures have lacked efficiency, stimulating queries on both states’ possible alternate motivations.[xvii] Yet these activities are not exclusively attributable to Qatar. Why is it then that Qatar is being related to ISIS more than any other state? The combination of the aforementioned elements with the state’s ambiguity towards terrorism during a critical point in the fight against the Islamic State has certainly created a favorable environment for criticism, placing Qatar at the center of the public eye.

Firstly, Qatar has backed rebellion and insurgency before. Having endorsed Hamas in Gaza, Islamic fighters in Libya, and radical groups in Syria, Qatar has formerly supported violent organizations – many of which have moved away from moderation – in opposing their regimes.[xviii] Although the state’s chief purpose is comparable to Western ideals founded on the eradication of authoritarianism, historical events have shown that the posterior impact of arming violent groups can outweigh the temporary benefits. Similarly, until very recently, the state had strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. After Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, several members of the organization were asked to leave the country, as part of an agreement signed between Gulf countries in the attempt to re-establish cooperation among the neighborhood and face the threat posed by ISIS.[xix]

Indisputably, Qatar’s reasoning behind its decisions is uncertain. Nevertheless, the possibility of Qatar sponsoring ISIS is limited. Providing material support to rebels is risky; but it still advances the aim of Western nations. Getting rid of authoritarian leaders should pave the path towards democracy and create an opportunity for peace. While it is true that Qatar has developed relationships with groups and organizations separated only by a thin line between moderation and extremism, there is no specific reason – so far – to assume that the state has been helping ISIS achieve its objectives. Analogously, the Muslim Brotherhood’s exile indicated a commitment with its regional partners in eradicating terrorism. Thus, even if there is no evidence absolving the country, there has been no confirmation of Qatar’s assistance to the so-called Islamic State.

So, is Qatar funding ISIS? Probably not. Qatar would not jeopardize its relationship with the United States and its neighbors to ally with a force that has the odds against it.


[i] Kirkpatrick, David. Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far. The New York Times. September 07, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/world/middleeast/qatars-support-of-extremists-alienates-allies-near-and-far.html?_r=0 [accessed on December 09, 2014]. See also Blair, David. Qatar and Saudi Arabia ‘have ignited time bomb by funding global spread of radical Islam’. The Telegraph. October 04, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/ middleeast/iraq/11140860/Qatar-and-Saudi-Arabia-have-ignited-time-bomb-by-funding-global-spread-of-radical-Islam.html  [accessed on December 09, 2014].

[ii] Bronstein, Scott. Self-funded and deep-rooted: How ISIS makes its millions. CNN News. October 07, 2014. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/meast/isis-funding/ [accessed on October 28, 2014].

[iii] Zalewski, Piotr. Islamic State Smuggles Oil Into Turkey – With Hostages as Insurance. Bloomberg Businessweek. September 11, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-09-11/islamic-state-smuggles-oil-into-turkey-with-hostages-as-insurance [accessed on October 29, 2014].

[iv] Turkey cracks down on oil smuggling with ISIS in mind. CBS News. October 06, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/turkey-cracks-down-on-oil-smuggling-with-isis-in-mind/ [accessed on October 29, 2014].

[v] Dalby, Chris. Who Is Buying The Islamic State’s Illegal Oil? Oil Prices and Energy News. October 31, 2014. Retrieved from http://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Who-Is-Buying-The-Islamic-States-Illegal-Oil.html [October 31, 2014].

[vi] Jones, Sam; Zalewski, Piotr; and Solomon, Erika. Isis sells smuggled oil to Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, says US Treasury. The Financial Times. October 30, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/6c269c4e-5ace-11e4-b449-00144feab7de.html#axzz3HZwmNolD [accessed on October 30, 2014].

[vii] Tan, Florence. U.S. says working with Iraqi Kurdistan to stop Islamic State oil smuggling. Reuters. October 30, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/30/us-iraq-usa-oil-idUSKBN0IJ0C520141030 [accessed on October 30, 2014].

[viii] International Energy Agency. Oil Market Report. October 14, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.iea.org/media/omrreports/fullissues/2014-10-14.pdf [accessed on December 07, 2014].

[ix] Philips, Matthew. Islamic State Loses Its Oil Business. Bloomberg Businessweek. October 14, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-10-14/u-dot-s-dot-air-strikes-cut-isis-oil-production-by-70-percent [accessed on October 31, 2014].

[x] Bronstein, Scott and Griffin, Drew. Self-funded and deep-rooted: How ISIS makes its millions. CNN. October 7, 2014. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/meast/isis-funding/ [accessed on November 01, 2014].

[xi] Laub, Zachary and Masters, Jonathan. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Council on Foreign Relations. August 8, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/iraq/islamic-state-iraq-syria/p14811 [accessed on November 01, 2014].

[xii] Zarate, Juan C. And Sanderson, Thomas M. How the Terrorists Got Rich. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS Militants Are Flush With Funds. The New York Times. June 28, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/in-iraq-and-syria-isis-militants-are-flush-with-funds.html [accessed on November 02, 2014].

[xiii] Dehghan, Saeed. Qassem Suleimani photo makeover reveals Iran’s new publicity strategy. The Guardian. October 14, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/14/suleimani-high-profile-to-publicise-irans-key-anti-isis-role [accessed on November 02, 2014].

[xiv] Watson, Ivan. ISIS-Kurdish fight stirs trouble in Turkey. CNN News. October 20, 2014. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/20/world/meast/turkey-isis/ [accessed on November 02, 2013].

[xv] Windrem, Robert. Who’s Funding ISIS? Wealthy Gulf ‘Angel Investors,’ Officials Say. NBC News. September 21, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/whos-funding-isis-wealthy-gulf-angel-investors-officials-say-n208006 [accessed on November 1, 2014].

[xvi] Stephens, Michael. Islamic State: Where does jihadist group get its support? BBC News. September 01, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29004253 [accessed on November 02, 2014].

[xvii] Lister, Charles. Cutting off ISIS’ Cash Flow. Brookings Institution. October 24, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/iran-at-saban/posts/2014/10/24-lister-cutting-off-isis-jabhat-al-nusra-cash-flow [accessed on November 02, 2014].

[xviii] Blair, David and Spencer, Richard. How Qatar is funding the rise of Islamist extremists. The Telegraph. September 20, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/qatar/11110931/How-Qatar-is-funding-the-rise-of-Islamist-extremists.html [accessed on November 02, 2014].

[xix] Black, Ian. Qatar-Gulf deal forces expulsion of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/16/qatar-orders-expulsion-exiled-egyptian-muslim-brotherhood-leaders [accessed on November 02, 2014].

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Roberta Nadine Rosania Gerevasi

Roberta Nadine Rosania Gerevasi is contributor at the International Security Observer. Roberta holds a BA in International Relations, and has recently completed a MSc. in Security Studies at University College London. For more than two years she was a researcher (distant collaboration) for a private think tank initiative based in Liberia, and she is currently working, for the second time, at the Italian Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. Having dedicated her professional experiences and education to the quantitative understanding of security issues, she specialized herself in civil war, insurgency and terrorism in Middle Eastern, South Asian, North African and Latin American countries. She is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian, with basic knowledge of French.

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