Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat in Syria more than two years ago, the group has continued to terrorize people, particularly in the northeast. In June, ISIS sleeper cells were linked to 18 attacks and 16 deaths, on par with ISIS-linked violence in May, when 14 died in 26 attacks.
The group’s survival is due, in part, to its ability to extort business owners to finance their operations and regrow their networks.
For months, ISIS has been using the threat of violence to operate extensive protection rackets in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor governorates. The inability of local authorities to provide sufficient protection from ISIS has left many people with no choice but to pay.
More importantly, fear of retaliation from both ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has allowed these extortion activities to go largely undetected, making it more difficult to counter. Unless the conditions that enable the group to finance itself are addressed, the group’s survival will almost certainly be guaranteed.
ISIS is reliant on its extensive knowledge of local communities to identify targets and determine the amount of tribute. The group typically flags professionals (such as doctors and pharmacists) and business owners (including prominent farmers, shepherds, shop owners, traders, and investors) who are considered well off. In a series of interviews that I conducted in recent months, those affected told me that ISIS uses a well-informed human intelligence network to track targets and estimate their income.
The scale and frequency of these forced payments varies. Some of the group’s victims said they pay between $700 and $1,500 annually, while investors overseeing oil fields in eastern Deir Ezzor reportedly pay more than $5,000 per well per month (or between 10 percent and 20 percent of the well’s monthly profits).
Once targets are selected, ISIS uses various methods to communicate demands. Victims told me that the group relies primarily on messaging applications, particularly WhatsApp, which uses end-to-end encryption and provides ISIS affiliates with anonymity. But ISIS also delivers written notices stamped with the group’s logo to the homes of its targets, an intimidation tactic that is arguably more effective.
Regardless of how people are coerced, ransom demands typically include the name of the target, the required amount in US dollar denominations, and where the payment should be dropped. The messages also contain clear and explicit warnings to deliver the money quickly and discreetly to avoid punishment. Failure to comply has resulted in ISIS attacks on businesses, kidnappings, and targeted killings. In January, ISIS reportedly destroyed several oil wells when those in charge refused to pay.
Nonetheless, there seems to be wide latitude in how ISIS enacts its retribution for non-compliance and is dependent on the personality of the ISIS commander and the profile of the targeted individual.
For example, not all ISIS targets are able to pay, and victims told me that the group leaves room for negotiation. A doctor in rural Deir Ezzor said he received a WhatsApp message from a foreign number demanding payment of $1,200. Attached to the message was a photo of an invoice stamped with the ISIS logo with details on where to send the cash. But when the doctor replied that he was internally displaced and treats patients who cannot afford medical care, the ISIS operative agreed to reduce the fee to $800.
Once details are agreed, ISIS members typically meet their targets in person. Cash drops do not always occur in remote areas, suggesting that ISIS members feel unthreatened by local authorities. ISIS even provides receipts to their prey, which not only makes the transaction more formal, but offers proof of payment if other ISIS members try to collect.
ISIS’s ability to deliver on its threats, which have been amplified by the general lack of security in the northeast, particularly in Deir Ezzor, makes people I spoke with reluctant to ignore the payment demands.
Estimating ISIS’s earnings from illicit shakedowns is difficult, but media reports suggest the group is generating several million dollars a year this way. While far less than the $80 million a month the group was generating in 2015, it’s more than enough to make the group dangerous. ISIS’s territorial defeat in 2019 reduced its state-like financial responsibilities, and its current cash flow is more than sufficient to finance its hit-and-run operations and ensure its survival.
Preventing ISIS from extorting local populations will require Syrian and regional officials to beef up security and crack down on the pay-for-protection schemes. It won’t be easy. But unless ISIS’s ability to fund its deadly operations is disrupted, its resurgence is all but assured. ISIS was once known as the world’s “richest” terrorist organization. Syria cannot afford to let it reclaim that title.
Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.