The Islamic State is increasingly struggling to justify its sanctioning of slavery, extortion, smuggling and murder against scholars and religious leaders who say the extremist group’s Mafia-style tactics can’t be reconciled with Muslim law.
In the time since the Sunni Muslim group split from al Qaeda in Iraq in February, it has distinguished itself among terrorist organizations by embracing criminal activities as its main source of funding. Kidnapping and ransom, seizure and sale of black market oil and enslavement and sex trafficking of women and children have all netted profits for the organization, analysts say.
“Just about any criminal enterprise in that part of the world, they are into it,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They seem to be taking all the traditional routes of the Mafia organizations except the drugs and alcohol. Although if they really needed the money, I’m sure they’d justify it.”
But to defend its actions and to lure recruits, the group — which has proved savvy in the management of its image and its message — has engaged in heavy-handed attempts to portray its cause as both authentically Muslim and sanctioned by Islamic law. The latest effort came this week in the form of an article in its slickly produced online magazine, Dabiq, that affirmed the group enslaved Yazidi women and children after its siege this summer of Mount Sinjar in Iraq — and then went on to defend the practice.
“One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’an and the narrations of the Prophet,” the article states.
But scholars and religious leaders say the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, misinterprets the Koran or uses passages outside the proper context to prop up its actions.
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“They take what verses they want, and because they don’t like others, they don’t use it,” said Omar Shahin, general secretary for the North American Imam’s Federation. “They are ignorant in their religion.”
The group’s citations of the Koran and its claims to be returning to a purer, more original form of Islam have prompted Muslim leaders around the world to condemn its practices and to speak out against its interpretations.
Last month, the Council on American-Islamic Relations led a coalition of 126 Muslim organizations and scholars in sending an open letter to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that dissected the claims and justifications made by the group and refuted them using passages from the Koran.
“Anytime any group of people is trying to carry out some action, they are going to try to have a justification, whether political or whatever. They know religion is a powerful motivating factor, so they seek to justify their message with it,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. “They are wrong, but that is their strategy.”
One such misinterpretation that Mr. Shahin points out is the Islamic State’s requirement that taxes or “jizya” be paid by non-Muslims who continue to reside in the areas of Iraq and Syria that the group has overrun — a practice that amounts to extortion. The fact the group is making declarations about what does and does not constitute Islamic law without a consensus of Muslim scholars at large violates a tenet of the religion, Mr. Shahin said.
“A Muslim government in a specific country can ask people to pay specific taxes,” he said. “But who can do it? That is a problem. Not just a specific group can.”
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The assessment of other Islamic State fundraising enterprises is backed by statements from officials with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. On various occasions during recent months, the office has highlighted the group’s use of extortion and robbery to raise money.
In a blog posted on the Treasury Department’s website on Sept. 10, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen wrote that, “unlike many other terrorist groups,” the Islamic State “relies on significant funding derived from sources internal to Syria and Iraq, including criminal conduct such as smuggling, extortion, and robbery.”
“It also has received millions of dollars through the despicable practice of ransoming hostages it has taken,” Mr. Cohen wrote.
Retired Gen. John Allen, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said Wednesday after returning from the region that the need to counter the group’s messaging was one of the principal topics he talked about with the United States’ Arab allies.
“I can’t stress enough how much we discussed confronting and contesting ISIL’s messaging in the information space and disrupting their recruitment and their radicalization of foreign fighters,” he said.
The level of “spin” the Islamic State uses to justify its internationally condemned criminal activity is to be expected from a group looking to maintain and strengthen its control, analysts say.
“It’s not unusual they would have PR. What’s unusual is it’s organized and it’s slick enough to tell you there is some serious organization behind it,” said Jon Anderson, an anthropologist at Catholic University. “They are busy putting out this spin because it helps with their recruitment. It helps with the fundraising.”
While it’s difficult to estimate the amount of money the group brings in through the various tentacles of its criminal enterprises, the black market sale of oil from fields in Northern Iraq and Syria is thought to compose the bulk of its funds. Previous estimates have put the group’s profits on refining and smuggling oil as high as $3 million per day, though airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition in recent weeks are thought to have put a dent in those figures.
“They have to make these arguments, because otherwise they would lose whatever support they have for what they are doing,” said Mary Habeck, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “They have no other justification for what they are doing. I have seen no scholars support this.”
The fact so many other Muslim groups have denounced the activities of the Islamic State, which shocked the world in June when its leaders declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate after rolling all but unopposed through a vast section of Iraq, should be evidence enough that the organization has gone far afield in its religious interpretations, Ms. Habeck said.
“They claim to have this underpinning of ideological reasoning for what they are doing,” she said. “It’s pretty tortured reasoning, and the fact this has not been engaged in by other Muslim leaders and groups, I think, shows it is contradictory to how other Muslims define their religion.”