Ahmed (not his real name) was working for an advertising agency in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor when the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) took control in April 2014. At first, the new regime was primarily concerned with winning hearts and minds through ideological outreach and the provision of basic services. It distributed free or heavily subsidized bread, cracked down on crime, and cleaned up the streets. Initially, it asked for little in return.
After a few months, however, ISIS became increasingly demanding. In December 2014, several ISIS representatives showed up at Ahmed’s office and ordered him and his coworkers to pay a percentage of their earnings as zakat, a mandatory charitable contribution that is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Even though Ahmed had already made his annual zakat contribution to less fortunate family and friends, ISIS insisted that he repay his dues (2.5 percent of his income and capital assets, as specified in the Koran) to the organization’s bayt al-mal. The bayt al-mal is a sort of treasury department modeled after the financial institutions of the original seventh-century caliphate that it claims to be emulating. Ahmed felt that he had no choice but to comply, so he paid the tax in exchange for a stamped receipt. “It wasn’t about the money, it was about power,” he said. “They take zakat to prove that they are in control.” In addition to taxes, ISIS soon began to forcibly conscript residents of Deir ez-Zor into military service, according to the Syrian human rights organization Sound and Picture.
According to the conventional wisdom, ISIS is primarily sustained by hundreds of millions of dollars in black market oil sales and a steady stream of tens of thousands of foreign recruits. But new information about tax revenues and conscription indicates that the organization is far more dependent on the cooperation of ordinary civilians than was previously believed. To be sure, ISIS still brings in oil revenue—about $2 million per week, according to some accounts. But over time, that funding source has been dwarfed by taxation. In fact, the ratio of money brought in from taxes to money from oil extraction now stands at an estimated 6:1. Meanwhile, reports of forced conscription in the Syrian cities of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and al-Bukamal as well as the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Hit indicate that voluntary recruitment is no longer sufficient to sustain ISIS’s costly military campaigns. With international recruitment on the decline, ISIS realizes that the success of its ambitious state-building project will be determined not by its appeal to foreign radicals but by its ability to cultivate homegrown support on its own turf.
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