WHICH story line sounds the more credible, - that linking the rebel movement ISIS to policies pursued by Iran, - or rather that linking the Sunni extremist force to Iran's adversary Saudi Arabia? In June last, fighters belonging to ISIS - a rebel movement that had previously established its foothold in the oil-rich areas of North-Eastern Syria - succeeded in capturing Mosul, a city surrounded by oil fields in Northern Iraq. Ever since, commentators in the world's press media have been speculating on the origins of the dreaded organisation's military success. It is admitted that the occupation of Mosul and vast tracts of the Sunni-dominated portion of Iraq would not have been possible except for the fact that ISIS forged a broad grasssroots' alliance expressing deep discontent by Iraq's minority Sunnis against policies of the Al-Maliki government. Nor would Mosul have fallen but for the dramatic desertion by top-officers of Iraq's state army. Yet various observers have meanwhile focused on the political economy behind ISIS's advance. Some experts belonging to US think tanks have discussed the likely sources of ISIS's finance, pinpointing private donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Other writers instead have connected ISIS's reliance on black market sales of oil in Kurdish territory with Iranian exports of crude, described as 'íllegal'.
Below I propose to put the spotlights on the methods of war financing used by ISIS. But before doing so, I suggest to highlight the movement's utter sectarianism. Soon after the occupation of Mosul, rebels blew up and bulldozed shrines and mosques in the city belonging to Shia Muslims. Pictures on the demolition of these buildings were circulated widely via the world's mainstream media. Unfortunately, few Western journalists have cared to draw attention to the role which destruction of shrines has played in the history of Islam. Contrary to what's the case in Christian Catholicism, - the veneration of saints at Sufi and Shia tombs and shrines basically reflects heterodox tendencies within the Islamic faith. Whereas Sunni orthodoxy of Saudi variety, i.e. Wahhabism, either condemns intercession, or at the least considers the worshipping of saints at tombs to be unacceptable, - Islam's minority of Shias, and its mystical current of Sufism, freely engage in such worship, - and this throughout the Muslim world. ISIS's work of demolition in Iraq can in no way be equated with practices of Iran's Shia rulers. Instead, they express the extremist movement's affinity with policies for long championed by Saudi Arabia.
What does the political economy behind ISIS's military advance in Syria and Iraq tell us about the organisation's affinities? First, in one sense ISIS's strategy might be interpreted as rather novel. Whereas the extraction of raw materials is a war strategy pursued by numerous rebel movements in the global South – see e.g. UNITA's extraction of diamonds in the context of Angola's civil war, and the trade in coltan by rebels in Congo (DRC) - rarely has a Southern rebel movement succeeded in turning crude oil into its chief source of revenue. Indeed, whereas ISIS originally relied on private funders in Saudi Arabia so as to build up a force of trained fighters, - the organisation has consciously targeted regions in Syria and Iraq harbouring major oil fields and (in the case of Iraq) oil refineries. By laying siege to the oil refinery at Baiji, responsible for processing a third of oil consumed in Iraq, ISIS hoped to undermine the state's control of oil resources. Again, some 450 million dollars was stolen by ISIS fighters from a subsidiary of Iraq's central bank after the occupation of Mosul. This reportedly was all income from oil extraction. Some observers put the cash income which ISIS derives from smuggled oil at a million dollars per day!
ISIS then is a 'religiously inspired', Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to lay hold on the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states, so as to re-establish a caliphat, a all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority. Yet though ISIS' methodology of reliance on oil for financing of its war campaigns is novel for a rebel movement, - it is not as such unique in the context of the Middle East. Ever since the 1970s, most oil-rich countries of the region have squandered a major part of their income from the exports of crude, by (indirectly) exchanging their main natural resource against means of destruction, - weapon systems bought on the international market. And while the Shah's Iran in the seventies was equally enticed into opting for this form of trade , - it is the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia which all through – from the oil crisis of 1973 onwards and until today – has functioned as the central axe of the given trade mechanism. Witness for instance the 1980s oil-for-arms (!) barter deal between the Saudi kingdom and Great Britain, the socalled Al Yamamah deal. And witness the 60 Billion US Dollar, largest-ever international arms' agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States clinched in 2010.
In 2014 Iraq is madly struggling to survive. A section of the world's media has already announced its impending demise, - predicting a split of the country into three portions, i.e. the Sunni, Kurdish and Shia portions. On the other hand, some commentators have advised that the US should now change gear and line up with Iran, so as to help the Iraqi government overcome its domestic political crisis. Yet the US and its European allies for long, too long, have bended over to service the Wahhabi state. Even as Western politicians loudly proclaimed their allegiance to democracy and secularism, - they failed to oppose or counter the oppression of, and utter discrimination against Shia citizens. For over fourty years they opted to close their eyes and supply Saudi Arabia with massive quantities of fighter planes, missiles and other weaponry, in exchange of the country's crude. The US has recently advised Iraq's prime minister al-Maliki known for his sectarian approach, that he should be more 'inclusive', i.e. sensitive towards Iraq's minority Sunni population. But has the US's prime Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia ever been chastised over its systematic discrimination of Shias? Has it ever been put to task for its cruel oppression of heterodox Muslims? And has the US ever pondered over the implications of the trading mechanism of disparate exchange it sponsored - for the future of democracy, food sovereignty and people's welfare in the Middle East?
The writer is the Author of 'Questioning Globalized Militarism' (Tulika, New Delhi/Merlin Press, London, 2007)