By Erin Rodewald // June 4, 2015
(This article originally appeared at The Philos Project)
Last September, President Barack Obama promised to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Yet now, nearly nine months later, the Islamic State controls territory in Iraq and Syria equivalent to the size of Belgium.
The human rights crisis is staggering: an estimated 2.2 million Iraqis have been displaced and thousands – mostly Christian, Shi’a and other religious minorities – have been tortured, raped, kidnapped or slaughtered. Priceless antiquities and ancient archeological sites have been pillaged or destroyed. Last month, ISIS fighters overran the city of Ramadi, and while the White House characterized that loss as a “temporary setback,” many view it as the latest manifestation of a weak strategy, so far ineffective in stopping ISIS advances throughout Iraq and Syria.
Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, and Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, cautioned, “If the president does not change course soon, he will find that his legacy is not peace with Iran and ending wars, but rather the establishment of a terrorist state with the resources to conduct devastating attacks against the United States and a region-engulfing sectarian war.”
As yet, the administration has signaled no interest in shifting its strategic focus in Iraq, however – at least militarily. Following the fall of Ramadi, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest remarked, “The United States is not going to be responsible for securing the security situation inside of Iraq. Our strategy is to support the Iraqi security forces in doing what we will not do for them.” Many analysts – both Kagans included – said they believe this posture is short-sighted and, in the end, a more robust military presence will be required to defeat ISIS and shore up the Middle East. Until a more muscular military strategy can be realized (or no longer deferred), other levers can be pulled to weaken the Islamic State and slow its ability to expand in the region.
Certain maneuvers would undermine terrorist financing. In congressional testimony in late 2014, Patrick Johnston of the RAND Corporation estimated that ISIS generates between $1 million and $3 million per day to fund its terrorist activities. This is a staggering sum, but as Johnston pointed out, “the key fact is that it used to take the group a month to make what it now makes each day.” The major sources of this wealth include extortion and taxation of Iraqi civilians, pilfering of Iraqi state-owned banks, oil-smuggling, black-market sale of looted goods and antiquities and kidnapping ransoms. Stopping the flow of these resources is an important step in stopping the scourge of ISIS.
To that end, the House Financial Services Committee has established a bipartisan task force charged with identifying ways to improve U.S. efforts to choke off terrorist financing. The Task Force to Investigate Terrorist Financing convened its first hearing in April to begin examining the current counter-terrorist financing tools available to the U.S. and how to best adapt those in response to ISIS. Findings will be reported in September.
Also in April, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 1493) to prevent artifacts removed since the start of Syria’s civil war from being sold or imported into the United States. The bill, now pending a vote by the full Congress, is more than just a modern-day Monuments Men in the making. By some estimates, ISIS garners $100 million annually from the illicit sale of antiquities. H.R. 1493 aims to reduce illegal trade and trafficking of international cultural property, thereby eliminating a major source of revenue for ISIS.
In addition to disrupting terrorist revenue streams, other levers would stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the region. U.S. intelligence officials estimate some 20,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the ISIS terror campaign. In testimony before an April meeting of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation noted that Turkey is the most important pipeline for foreign jihadists into Iraq and Syria. He recommended that the “goal in Turkey should be to identify key routes that insurgents use to transit people and material; improve aerial, ground and maritime surveillance; strengthen the capacity and resources of border security personnel; construct barriers where feasible, such as walls and berms; and conduct raids against infiltrators.”
And in response to U.S. citizens who seek to return to the U.S. after having fought with the extremists, the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently passed H.R. 237, the FTO Passport Revocation Act of 2015. This proposed legislation, which awaits a vote by the full Congress, would allow denial or revocation of passports to individuals who have assisted terrorist organizations.
These and other similar mechanisms provide legislators and government officials with valuable tools in the global fight against terrorism. They are necessary levers, but a growing number of observers would agree they are not sufficient. At the end of the day, a winning strategy will require more than stopping the flow of money and foreign fighters. Degrading and destroying ISIS will require these measures in combination with clear victories on the battlefield.