ISIS finds taxing more durable than lootingJuly 13, 2014
Taking a cut from oil refineries and water works is more lucrative and enduring than demolishing infrastructure and selling the spare parts, argues Prof. Ariel Ahram in an incisive piece about Al Qaeda in Iraq from the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog (hat tip to El Grillo):
…Most researchers point particularly to the “lootability” of resources – whether they are easily seized and can be sold on the international market at a significant mark up – to explain the onset and intensity of resource wars. Control over these goods motivates people to take up arms while the revenue from selling them fund the fight. Jeremy Weinstein shows how resource “rich” rebel movements are prone to attracting opportunists and thugs, who are ill-disciplined and prone to manhandling civilians. Rebel groups with access to lootable resources are liable to splinter and metastasize, becoming more like criminal operations than political movements.
But not all resources are lootable and not all lootable resources have the same centrifugal effects on rebel behavior. As Philippe Le Billon and Eric Nicholls have shown, unlike diamonds or drugs, dams and oil rigs are better targets for extortion than physical appropriation. After all, these structures are far more valuable assembled and operational than broken down for spare parts. Moreover, dams and rigs require a cadre of experts, technicians and engineers to run effectively. And, as Mancur Olson famously pointed out, opportunities for extortion create incentives for building sustainable, long-term rule, which are distinctly different from simply predation. According to New York Times reporter Thanassis Cambanis, IS left the staff at the Tabqa Dam unharmed and in place, allowing the facility to continue operations and even selling electricity back to the Syrian government. Similarly, oil fields under IS control continue to pump. Indeed, IS has shrewdly managed these resources to help ensure a steady and sustainable stream of revenue. As one IS fighter told the New York Times, while Assad’s loyalists chant “Assad or burn the country,” IS retorts “We will burn Assad and keep the country.” Beside revenue from oil and water, IS collects a variety of commercial taxes, including on trucks and cellphone towers. It has also imposed the jizya (poll tax) on Christian communities under its control…
It sounds as though ISIS has matured beyond the traditional jihadist outlook of a spurned lover (“If I can’t have you, no one will”). It has realized that nine-tenths of the battle is in “staying power,” and that it will be far easier to govern if there is infrastructure in place to keep the economy and society operating after all the dust settles. This strategic thoughtfulness suggests, once again, that state sponsors such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are coaching ISIS’s leaders, or that Saddam’s old flag officers are mixed in ISIS’s shura council, or both.