ISIL Inc.: A portrait of a modern terrorist enterprise


The West’s inability to contain Islamic State (ISIL) stems from its singular perception that it is a rogue state and nothing more. ISIL is indeed now a real, if nascent and unrecognised, state actor. ISIL does not operate out of a safe haven within a sponsor state; it has become a de facto state that provides a safe haven for terrorists, ruthlessly and mercilessly administrating a territory.

However ISIL has become much more than a hostile state entity; it is also a successful criminal enterprise. The West has so far failed to impede the ISIL’s financial gains which are marked by a fluidity and wealth never seen before.

ISIL’s diverse financial portfolio makes it the richest terrorist organisation in history, with an estimated wealth of 2 billion US$. The aim of this paper is to examine the business side of ISIL and to put forward that the West’s strategy to fight ISIL should take a much broader and more holistic approach.

The ISIL business strategy
ISIL is effective because it runs its criminal/terrorist enterprise with a business acumen that has no historical precedent. The predecessor of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq, compiled a list of ‘lessons learned’ based on what it perceived as al-Qa’ida’s failure in effectively using its financial resources. Among these were the failure to distribute funds among local cells and the inability to acquire a regular funding source. Based on al-Qa’ida’s failures, ISIL redesigned a modern business strategy to run its terrorist enterprise.

ISIL also has a corporate plan which originates from a blueprint designed by Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khifani, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defence force. Also known as the “Lord of the Shadows”, he meticulously designed the original structure of ISIL. His master plan represents the source code of how to create and run an “Islamic Intelligence State” resembling the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious domestic intelligence agency.

The plan articulates how to recruit followers, how to identify sources of income, and how to target influential families and military opponents. ISIL is also results-oriented: it has articulated its strategic goals, complete with a 2020 vision and 14 key indicators that measure its monthly performance and investments from region to region. To emphasise its transparency and professionalism, it publishes an annual report which sets out its business strategy of terror and destruction, including specific investments, down to the cost of each suicide mission.

The ISIL brand
Moreover, ISIL has effectively managed its strategic branding. It uses online media tools to disseminate its vision of the caliphate. Similar to a start-up business, it retains its competitive advantage with its al-Hayat Media arm which oversees several media divisions and provides each province content that pays tribute to fighters and extols battlefield exploits.

Its strategic messaging and use of media as a psychological weapon in war is used tactically to magnify its power, attract foreign fighters and new citizens, and win greater economic resources. It has not only populated social media platforms but has attracted a global network of supporters that articulate, magnify and circulate its violent extremist messages worldwide. So far little has been done to counter the ISIL’s digital campaign.

One of the most powerful tools of the ISIL is the creation of its brand and image, linked to the notion that it is a modern-day “caliphate”. By creating this notion, ISIL presents itself as the vanguard of militant Islam, the only legitimate jihadist movement to hold territory and govern a pseudo state. It claims to offer an “authentic” way of life different from secularism.  The ISIL propaganda machine maintains that it is providing medical, social, policing, and rescue services and an effective administration.

The claim to be the true Islamic State has facilitated the group’s recruitment of Westerners, thousands of whom have flocked to join its ranks. The appeal to join is rooted deeper than just the romanticised rise of an Islamic fighting force; the caliphate is also appealing to more secular interests by advertising jobs, a regular monthly salary, a wife or husband, and in some cases even a home.

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This is an excerpt from Christina Schori Liang’s essay ISIL INC.:  A Portrait of a Modern Terrorist Enterprise, published in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, page 76. Christina Schori Liang is the Senior Programme Advisor and a Senior Fellow with the Emerging Security Challenges Programme, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

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