Why has Isil started demanding ransoms in hostage videos?
On Tuesday, a new online video purportedly released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) attracted the attention of the international media. In the video, a masked militant threatened to kill two Japanese hostages unless a $200 million ransom is paid within 72 hours. In contrast to previous videos, this time Isil explicitly asked for the payment of a ransom in exchange for its captives’ lives.
What does this indicate about Isil financing and its wider communication strategy?
I believe that this new development has to be interpreted in light of the ongoing competition for influence within the jihadi community, primarily between Isil and al-Qaeda.
Both extremist organisations have proved to be very effective in using online social networks to recruit followers and exploit international media attention. Since 2013, Isil and al-Qaeda have been attempting to outperform each other. The prize of such a competition is to achieve the status of the sole and legitimate leader of the jihadi camp.
In the context of this struggle for influence, Isil’s new strategy of demanding a costly ransom could be partly explained as an escalation of the propaganda war after gunmen reportedly affiliated to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) killed 12 people in an attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
The Charlie Hebdo attack gave al-Qaeda huge international exposure. An explicit request for a ransom could be Isil’s attempt to make the news and regain some lost terrain.
Where do ransom payments fit into Isil’s wider finances?
Kidnapping for ransom is just one, and certainly not the most significant, tool used by Isil to finance its activities.
Contrary to other extremist organisations, like al-Qaeda, that rely heavily on external donors and financiers, Isil has consistently tried to maintain financial independence.
Isil’s main source of income is unquestionably the underground sale of Iraq and Syria’s oil and gas. According to some credible reports, the smuggling of oil and gas has resulted in a daily income of about $2 million, making Isil the wealthiest extremist organisation in the world.
Since the proclamation of the caliphate, Isil has also coupled forms of shadow taxation and extortion with more official taxation systems, including a custom tax on trucks driving on the region’s main highways.
Additionally, in the territories under Isil control, non-Muslims are required to pay a “protection” tax, called jizya.
Along with oil and gas sales and more or less formal systems of taxation, Isil relies on money coming from agriculture, electricity, cotton production, water, and the sale of stolen antiques on the black market.
What is the relevance of the $200 million figure demanded in the video?
In April 2014, France allegedly paid to Isil $18 million for the release of four French hostages. A few days ago, Italy supposedly paid $13 million to free two young nationals that had been kidnapped in Syria. These sums pale in comparison to the $200 million requested by Isil in its last video.
A possible explanation for this unprecedented request is that the $200 million figure has mostly a symbolic meaning. During a recent visit in Cairo on January 17, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged exactly the same amount of money in non-military assistance for countries battling Isil.
Giving more credence to the fact that the two events are somehow linked, the masked militant in the video directly addressed Mr Abe: “To the prime minister of Japan: although you are more than 8,500km away from the Islamic State, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade.”
The increased frequency of terrorism-related incidents occurring in places as distant as Australia, Europe and the Middle East is worrisome. As the competition for influence between Isil and al-Qaeda continues, we are likely to experience a dangerous escalation in these two extremist organisations’ rhetoric and actions.
This article was originally published on The Telegraph