ISIS puts a new twist on terror recruiting: big money

ISIS isn't just recruiting radicals. It's using its huge tax and oil revenues to target the Middle East's unemployed with promises of cash and benefits.

Taylor Luck/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Naziha Bel Jayyed holds a photograph for her son, Mohammed, who joined ISIS under the pretext of working in a hotel in Libya, in their family home in the impoverished neighborhood of Hay Ettadhamen in Tunis, Tunisia, on August 2.

For Mohammed Bel Jayyed, the path to a martyr’s death under the flag of the Islamic State began with dreams of a Tunisian patisserie and the girl next door.

It was 2012 when he got engaged to a neighbor’s daughter, moving closer to his hope of one day raising a family. But the double shifts he was working in posh patisseries frequented by the Tunisian elite were not moving him closer to his goal of owning his own shop. In fact, the $180 he was scraping together each month was not even enough for him to move into a home of his own.

Without that, the marriage was on hold.

Within two years, with barely enough money to care for his mother and two sisters, and no prospects for change, Mr. Bel Jayyed had left for Libya.

He told his mother he had been offered a job as a pastry chef in a five-star hotel in Tripoli. Bel Jayyed’s mother, Naziha, did not question the story. But in October 2014, she received a phone call that brought her to her knees.

“Please forgive me mother, forgive me. I have been the source of everyone’s problems,” Bel Jayyad said, his voice quivering, refusing to say where he was.

The line suddenly cut.

Four hours later, a long-bearded man from the neighborhood came to her doorstep, informing her that Bel Jayyed had been “martyred” in the name of the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

Naziha believes her son was kidnapped and forced to travel to Syria. Yet experts in Tunisia say employment in Libya is a common cover for young Tunisians who resort to joining the Islamic State.

“Tunisians have been going to Libya on the pretense of employment as a cover, and the government turned a blind eye to what was essentially a fast track to jihadism in Syria,” says Badra Gaaloul president of the Tunis-based International Centre for Strategic, Security, and Military Studies.

The business of recruiting the next generation of terrorists has long preyed on young men with limited prospects. High unemployment across the Middle East points to a vast pool of Muslims who are often undereducated, easily ensnared, or simply bored.

But the Islamic State has taken the trend to new lengths, making financial stability a central part of its recruiting pitch, according to defectors. While Al Qaeda has long provided salaries and the latest military equipment – reportedly backed by individual donors from the Arab Gulf – it tended to target ideologically driven recruits, with money often not a factor in their pitch.

But the Islamic State, with wealth generated from oil revenues and taxation in the territories it holds, is promising foreign fighters higher salaries, housing, and additional benefits of $250 per month for a family of five, according to Monitor sources, as well as other reports.

“It is not a coincidence that ISIS is building its … networks in the very neighborhoods, towns, and refugee camps that are economically marginalized – something Al Qaeda had never even considered,” says Hassan Abu Haniyeh, an expert in jihadist movements who is based in Amman, Jordan.

Countries facing the stiffest economic challenges – such as Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt – have become the Islamic State’s most fertile recruiting grounds, Mr. Abu Haniyeh adds.

As of August, between 6,000 and 7,000 Tunisians served in Islamic State ranks, the highest total number of any nationality. Jordanians are estimated to come in second at 3,000, which means it is contributing more per capita than any other nation.

Targeting the disenfranchised

Money is certainly not the only factor drawing recruits to the Islamic State. But for at-risk youths with no job prospects and a life on hold, it can be a deciding factor.

The Islamic State is zeroing in on the 30 percent of Tunisians who have university degrees but no job, particularly in urban slums and in towns outside Tunis.

“People highlight the fact that ISIS recruits are university graduates, but that does not mean they are well-off or are employed,” says Badra Gaaloul president of the Tunis-based International Centre for Strategic, Security and Military Studies.

“In Tunisia, 90 percent of ISIS recruits are from economically marginalized towns and neighborhoods,” Ms. Gaaloul says, citing one of her center’s reports.

Across the Middle East, sluggish economies, combined with a surge in the youth population, present Islamic State recruiters with numerous opportunities. In Tunisia, those under the age of 30 account for more than half the population – but 40 percent of them are unemployed. In Jordan, those under 30 are more than 70 percent of the population, and nearly one-third are jobless.  

According to Islamic State and Al Qaeda defectors interviewed by the Monitor, cash handouts and the promise of financial reward begin at the training level.

Local-based recruiters linger in Tunisia’s mosques and cafés, offering young men $3,000 for a three-month training in a camp over the border in Libya. Upon arrival, each prospective fighter is offered a choice: to be given cash up front or have their salaries delivered to their families back home, according to Mohammed, who broke away from an Islamic State-affiliate training camp and returned to Tunisia in late 2014.

“Most decide to have it delivered to their parents’ doorstep,” said Mohammed, 24, who declined to use his full name for fear of retribution.

A shadowy network of operatives in Tunis’s slums and villages pass on money to “middle men,” fiery clerics who share the Islamic State’s rhetoric and who are ingrained in the local community, who then distribute it to fighters’ parents.

The influx of cash is noticeable.

Several homes of alleged fighters in the working-class Hay Ettadhamen neighborhood – where Bel Jayyed lived – have newly erected second- and third- white concrete storys. Other impoverished neighborhoods in Tunis are witnessing a minor “building boom.”

“Thousands of families in impoverished neighborhoods are suddenly living beyond their means, and it is all because their sons are fighting in Syria and Iraq,” Gaaloul said.

In Jordan, where youth unemployment hovers around 30 percent, young men tell of being offered stable employment in Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate.” It is the idea of financial security, rather than the sheer amount of dollars, that is attractive, according to those close to the process.

“The government is not hiring, and no company is investing outside Amman,” said Ahmed, a resident of southern Jordan who refused to use his real name due to security concerns. Ahmed and a group of his friends, all unemployed university graduates, were offered promised salaries of up to $800 if they travelled to the Islamc State’s self-declared caliphate.

“We were faced with a choice – to spend the rest of our lives in limbo or to earn a living wage as part of their caliphate. For some the temptation is too much.”

ISIS's deep coffers

The Islamic State’s financial resources were estimated by the United States Treasury Department at $1 billion in 2015, and drying them up has been one of the major goals of the US-led global coalition. Strategic strikes have destroyed the group’s oil refineries and banks.

As a result, the Islamic State’s oil revenues have dropped from a peak of $50 million per month in 2015 down to a little over $20 million per month now. Reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggest the Islamic State has cut fighters’ salaries by 50 percent this year. But the group’s coffers remain large enough to lure new recruits.

What the Islamic State has lost in oil revenues, experts say, it has more than made up for in tax revenues. According to the US Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, the Islamic State’s tax revenues stand at $360 million per year.

Short of cutting off its tax revenues, which would require the liberation of its large swaths of territory, states should work to crack down on the money-handlers across the region, experts say.

It would be no easy task.

In Jordan, the Islamic State’s money men work through potential recruits’ friends and relatives, relying on face-to-face meetings in private homes rather than cafés or mosques. Few traces are left behind; all transactions are made cash-in-hand.

In Tunisia, a lack of central government control has undermined efforts to monitor the increasing influence of hardline Salafist Muslims in neighborhoods and towns. Illicit money flows along well-travelled smuggling routes from neighboring Algeria and Libya, with Islamic State funds being brought in alongside black market fuel and electronics.

“If Libya had not become a failed state, we could have solved the issue of terrorism and extremism within one year,” says Ali Laarayedh, who served as Tunisia’s first interior minister following the country’s revolution, from late 2011-13.

“The sudden opening of freedoms allowed some of these extremist groups to operate and build underground financial and recruiting networks we are still dismantling today.”

But for many families such as the Bel Jayyeds, any action is too late.

“My son only left to help support us and improve our lives” Ms. Bel Jayyed says, clutching a framed photograph of her only son.

“If only he could have found decent work, we would never have lost him.”

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