Agriculture as the new oil for ISIS

Amid wreaking havoc and shedding blood, the terror outfit has kept its eyes on agricultural output to keep the coffers full

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be all things evil, but when it comes to finding sources of revenue it seems to have gone back to basics – agriculture. Even as the terror outfit continued to kill and maim over the years, we now know that it also kept an eye on crop yields.

Traditionally, ISIS would depend on oil, looting, ransom, foreign funds and taxation to fill its coffers. But, if a new report is to be believed, it has also relied on agriculture to survive and to keep its terror factory running. This has gone on in spite of the military conflict, large-scale displacement of farmers and supply chain disruptions.

The study, published by the academic journal Food Policy, says recurrent taxation of agriculture is a crucial source of income for ISIS. This is understandable considering other income streams, such as oil and ransom, have shown signs of dwindling in recent times. Satellite evidence suggests that agricultural production has been sustained in ISIS-controlled regions in Syria and Iraq during the last two years.

The researchers – Hadi H. Jaafar and Eckart Woertz – estimate that in 2015 ISIS might have generated $56 million from wheat and barley taxation alone. Moreover, the total value of estimated 2.45 million tons of wheat in 2015 roughly equaled that of ISIS oil production during its peak in late 2014 and early 2015. Thankfully, this situation is not likely to continue for too long as supply chains have been disrupted and quality seeds and other agricultural input aren’t getting any better.

Even a dreaded terror group on the absolute fringe of the society realizes that agricultural production brings in a degree of resilience to the regime

Ehtesham Shahid

The finding throws up several interesting facts and raises several questions. Iraq and Syria happened to be net-importers of wheat before conflict began in these countries. However, this is not the case with ISIS, at least as of now. The region under its control produces an exportable surplus probably because it has maintained production while the population has declined.

Since no one expects an organization such as ISIS to equally distribute food to all sections of the population hence it is difficult to imagine how the distribution system works. It is also unclear whether the organization is generating funds from actual agricultural output or just via tax collection.

Food for thought

Several inferences can be drawn from the information this research provides. It shows that even a dreaded terror group on the absolute fringe of the society realizes that agricultural production brings in a degree of resilience to the regime. It is crucial for political legitimacy even when it is for a population that is under violent control.

The use of satellite imagery to derive critical conclusions also raises few questions. If a couple of researchers can zero-in on a specific region and find empirical evidence related to agricultural output, why can’t governments, with enormous resources at their command, do the same for rural areas that continue to remain neglected.

Moreover, if a rank terror outfit, which only knows violence and cruelty, understands the significance of agriculture, shouldn’t the more “civilized” world do more to promote farming for food security and employment generation.

It’s a travesty of time that anyone with any doubt about the need to focus on agriculture has a new example set by the world’s most dreaded and detested organization.

Food insecurity has indeed been “a major driver of conflict in the Arab world” and hence deserves constant attention. Whether ISIS’s interest in agriculture is a product of these circumstances or a sign of things to come is anybody’s guess.

Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.



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