Thursday, 4 December 2014

Die Zeit, New Information on ISIL Funding and Aspirations?

A dozen reporters (Onur Burcak Belli, Andrea Böhm, Alexander Bühler, Kerstin Kohlenberg, Stefan Meining, Yassin Musharbash, Mark Schieritz, Ahmet Senyurt, Birgit Svensson, Michael Thumann, Tobias Timm and Fritz Zimmermann) have produced an interesting reportage on 'The Business of the Caliph' Die Zeit 3. Dezember 2014 where they argue that the "Islamic State" militants want to present their territorial gains as a state but they say that in fact its "is little more than a mafia regime". It may be rich but the "caliphate" is in a state of crisis, as an investigation in seven countries shows.
At the moment, it is brute force that is holding this caliphate together – not faith in God and certainly not "love and patience." And it is theft that is filling IS coffers, not any kind of functioning economy. The caliphate is unsustainable. Still, even an implosion wouldn’t necessarily translate to victory over IS. If cornered, Western intelligence analysts fear, IS might resume its previous guerilla tactics and attacks – possibly even exporting them abroad.
The article presents a picture of an entity which is about to collapse in on itself. If this analysis is correct, we might consider whether the US analysts reached the same opinion before they decided to stage their 'strategic' bombing, counting on being able to use the collapse as a propaganda victory to offset previous massive US failure in the region. In which case, it would suit their purposes to promote a vision of a vibrant and financially strong and successful state now. Thus we note that although US media cite enormous earnings from illicit oil sales, these journalists conclude (though on what evidence is not explicitly noted) that the sums raised from selling oil are not as high as has been proposed by other writers, likely no more than 360K $ per Day.

This then brings us to the story of antiquities sales which have figured so largely in the story of ISIL funding (and therefore the coverage in this blog and others). While antiquities per se are not mentioned in the article, ISIL extortion measures and theft of property from fleeing families is, as is raising money through taxation. But there is no trace in this text of the Khums tax which has previously figured largely in US discussions of the trade. This is a serious discrepancy which needs explaining.
The tax collectors are both systematic and arbitrary. Ten percent of everything is the policy, on both profits and capital. [...] In addition, a 2.5 percent charity tax is levied. Some "taxes," though, are nothing more than protection money in disguise [...] those wishing to withdraw money from their [bank] accounts must report where it came from to IS. If it is determined to be the product of speculation, it is confiscated. "What are you planning to do with it," is the second question posed. If the answer is satisfactory, a maximum of 10 percent of the customer's account balance is paid out to prevent people from fleeing.
It is difficult to see how supporters of the no-questions-asked market can assume with such levels of financial control, that any profits made from illicit antiquities are not passing through ISIL hands. Yet this is a far cry from the alarmist stories of ISIL selling antiquities directly to middlemen. So what's going on?

A second article however by Fritz Zimmermann 'Der Islamische Staat und die Atiken' (4th December 2014) concentrates on the antiquities issue. I spent much of the morning driving around Warsaw to get the first numbers of the newspaper to come off the plane. What was being Tweeted about it looked enticing and alarming. Having secured a copy, I found it a profound disappointment. This is rather vague and basically restates the dealers' view that there is still no solid evidence of ISIL antiquities sales (and no antiquities directly linked to ISIL have been found on the black market). They say looters and smugglers pay a tax to dig and trade in the products (but confusingly place the tax at 20%). It starts off, like ms Kampmann, with the Chulov "36 million" and goes downhill from there. These journalists seem to be rejecting the information gained by other researchers, and instead focus on the negative, nobody knows, nobody's seen - and nobody knows what's buried in the ground (this relates to the current odd situation in German antiquities laws). The gist of things is wait-and-see , if looting is going on, they conclude, the looted objects will surface in a few years when attention has died down. This is the object centred view of the dealers, what is the real issue is the destruction of the sites, not where the antiquities from them end up. There is little real meat in this article which looks almost as if it was written as a space-filler. Right underneath the article is a paid advert which perhaps gives a clue as to what is going on here:

Adjacent there turns out to be a lengthier interview [Tobias Timm, Fritz Zimmermann] with Monika Grutters (Staatsministerin for Culture and media) and Hermann Parzinger (of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz) "Der Schaden ist unermesslich" which is a general overview of the looting problem and why German law needs changing. The only real reference to the Syria-Iraq situation is that Grutters points out that these changes have not been prompted by the discussion of ISIL-funding.

UPDATE December 4, 2014
See the discussion by Sam Hardy, 'The antiquities trade in the Islamic State: 12.5% taxation of private looting-smuggling business?', Conflict Antiquities December 4, 2014.

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