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Kurds are gathering oppisite the syrian city of Kobane or Ain al Arab. The city is surrounded by the "Islamic State" and the people of the turkish side fear a massacre.

The economy of terror: Terror expert Napoleoni: Don't bomb the IS, corrupt it!

Loretta Napoleoni is working on the economy of terror since years. She tells Dagmar Dehmer, the "Islamic State" is more modern and more pragmatic than most terror-organizations before. Only the PLO in the 70ies was similarily organzied, she argues.

Ms Napoleoni, you work on the economy of terror since years. Is there a difference between the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria compared to other terrorist organizations?

What the "Islamic State" does is unique. Although it is using traditional techniques. It uses a  combination of legal and criminal activities to finance itself. But the Islamic State is very modern and very pragmatic. It is much closer to a traditional state than for example Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram is clearly an armed organization leaning to the criminal side. It does not have a concept, how to run a territory. It does not understand, how to make the transition from a terrorist oranization to a political organization. At the end of the day, what these organizations want, is achieving a political goal. Terrorism can be defined as criminal activity plus more aims. What is the aim of the "Islamic State"? To place itself where today there is a legitimate state. Most terrorist organzations go lost in their criminal activities. Many degenerate into purely criminal organizations. They lost their idea, their goal. The "Islamic State" is not like that at all. The "Islamic State" is actually very close to it’s final goal, the political concept of the califate. Because of the way it is running it’s economy is getting closer and closer to the way a state runs the econmy.

With Al Qaida in the Maghreb (Aqmi), which was running parts of northern Mali after the islamist occupation in a state like way, I am not so sure, if they are so different.

Aqmi is an organization that claims to be much stronger than it is. They do not control a vast territory, they move in a vast territory. Aqmi is more a smuggling organization than a state. That is what Aqmi does: smuggle. They are not running a state, they are running a business based on smuggeling. The closest we can get to the "Islamic State" is the PLO, the palestinian liberation organization, when they had control over the Gaza strip and the Westbank. The acted as the political authority, they built infrastructure, they raised taxes, they looked after the poor. That ist he typical behavior of a legitimate state.

Can a terror group really prevent that degeneration?

It is difficult for an organization, to maintain the political goal, because criminality corrupts you. The IS-leader Abu Bakr al Bagdadi showed amazing wisdom and understaning of how easy it is for an organization that is constantly engaged in illegal activity to degenerate to a criminal organization. In most organizations sooner or later corruptions is slipping in. It looks to me, that "Islamic State" is very careful to prevent that. It is a very different organization from the others. Although there is nothing new about what they are doing. But they are doing it in a modern, in a pragmatic way.

What role do natural ressources play in the business venture of Islamic State?

The natural ressources are important. They are important to establish a local partnership with the tribes. They run the natural ressources together, they share it. Again a sign of modernity and pragmatism. Without that kind of partnership the "Islamic State" would be perceived as an occupying power like the fallen dictator Saddam Hussein before, or the Americans or the government of Nouri al Maliki. It was fundamental to get some sort of consensus within the Sunni population. Through this partnership there is a trickle down effect. The population is better of than before. Little by little we have an economy that is moving away from the war economy to a business orientated economy with a perspective for wealth. But I think, the number one ressource is the runnning of a state, the raising of taxes.

How are the connections between the illegal and the legal economy?

The illegal world has crept little by little into the legal world in the last 30 years. Globalzation instead of reducing these interdependencies has increased them. It is no problem to sell a tanker of illegal oil on the international market as legal.

That plays in the hands of "Islamic State" too?

Yes. But selling illegal oil is a criminal business. That is exactly, what "Islamic State" claims to fight against, corrupted, oligarchic elites. Although the "Islamic State" too is selling oil that does not belong to them. But does it really not belong to them? This is a war of conquest. If you step back and think about it, it is a war of conquest like in the premodern society. They may say: I conquered this, I am not a criminal, I am sharing these ressources with the local people? In international law this is not accepted. But this is the way they think.

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What role does the violence play? Is the extent of violence the "Islamic State" is using not corrupting their cause too?

The "Islamic State" violence is not different to the violence we saw in other places. Chechyna for example, Bosnia, Kosovo. It is not something new. The difference ist hat today because of social media we see this violence in front of us in real time. Before we would get news that was more careful in showing certain images, not censoring it but not showing it. In the time of social mediat he press is constantly playing catch up. The "Islamic State" has shown tremendous skillful understanding of communication. In that context violence is fundamental. Violence is not the means, is not an aim, that is the califate. But violence is used to scare people, especially us. By being exposed to that kind of violence you think: These people are ruthless, strong and very dangerous. That enflates the power of the group. In the Middle East this violence is presented as the final justice of god. God is not only the god of love it is also the god of punishment. That works in an almost positive way for certain individuals. In a tribal society that has been at war for a long time. Living in chaos, where worst atrocities have not been brought to justice, this is a positive sign, that finally somebody is bringing justice. This seems incredible to us. But we should step back from our comfort zone in our political correct societies.

We have the rule of law.

That is the big difference. I would be horrified, if somebody would cut the hand of somebody who stole my juwlery. But because I know, he would go to jail. He would pay. It is not a neccecity in order to prevent people from stealing because there is a legal system. In a society, where you have no legal system, where people can come and steal and rape and do whatever they want, somebody who comes in and punishes harshly, it is to them like god has come back to rescue them. The people in Iraq have been at war for 30 years. We do not want to understand, because we want everybody to be like us.

Put into a formula, you would say: the economy of terror is successful if it is transforming itself into a kind of state economy.

Yes. When it becomes a tool to reach a position, in which you can actually start running a state. But for the people this is a shell state. It does not have the political identity. The nation state is formed by the right to self determination. The political core ist he beginning oft he nation state. The German people for example decided to reunite Germany. That was a political decision. An act expressed by the people. Then Germany startet to construct the infrastructure of the state. For expample the decision to exchange one East Mark to one West Mark. You invest in the economic and social infrastructure of the state. In the shell state the opposite is true. An organization occupies a territory, it does it by force with terrorist means or a war of conquest like the "Islamic State". Then it immidiatly sets up the economic infrastructure. They start running a soup kitchen for the poor. Thy build new markets, they fix the electricity system. But without the core. Because people cannot say they want to be here or not. That is what I call a shell state. What the Islamic State is doing, is working to use this infrastructure to build consensus. It tries to formulate some kind of legitimazy. So people at least can say: It is better then it was before. Seeking consensus is something nobody has done before. The Taliban have moved in and then they preyed on the population, impoverished the population. They were an occupying power.

That sounds rather positive.

The issue is: How stable ist hat system? Can the Islamic State really manage not to degenerate to a criminal organization, occupying power, dictatorial regime? How close is the control system to prevent the members to abuse their power?

Your advice for governments, who want to fight the Islamic State, is: Don’t bomb them, corrupt them?

Yes, I would say so. Bombing is the wrong strategy. They live in between the Syrian population. Are we ready to bomb civilians? I am not. I would think the best possible strategy would be to corrupt them. In a way that does not neccesarily make them degenerate but corrupt them to bring them into the international rule of law. It is not the first time, we deal with a dictator. Look at Muammar al Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein. None of them got into power in a legitimate way without bloodshed. Why are we so afraid oft the "Islamic State"? Ist the "Islamic State" threatening the West? I don’t think so. It might be threatening the interests oft he West in the Middle East. But we are not dependend on the oil coming from Iraq. We do not even buy it. Our interests in Syria are almost zero. For Europe much more important is a good relationship to Russia. It does not look like that is what we are doing. There is not realpolitik left in the West.


It is the truth. We are handeling the situations in Ukraine and Iraq completely wrong. Not showing any sign of pragmatism, of realpolitik. But al Bagdadi is showing us, what realpolitik is. It is scary. It you say something like this in a Nato-meeting, they are crucifying you.

I am glad, that you are safe from that. But why is the "Islamic State" so popular?

Fort he first time in centuries there is an organization that is not talking but acting. That is new. The concept of the modern state is seen negative in the Salafist religion. Since the criminalization oft he Muslim brotherhood by the Egypt president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950ies they condemned the nation state. That is why they wanted to go back to the seventh century. The Islamic State is not condemning modern technology. This is why they are so popular. Young people flock to them, listen to their music and working at the same time for their own modern islamic state.

That is rather idealistic, isn't it?

Yes, I think so.

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