Since the period 2014-2016, when the Islamic State attained the height of its power and controlled swaths of territory spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria, much ink and discussion have been devoted to the topic of the group's finances and how the group was generating money inside those territories. This focus on financing is largely intended from a policy perspective of counterterrorism, aimed at choking the group's sources of revenues and thus reducing its ability to conduct military operations against its local enemies and terrorist attacks abroad in places like Europe.
In the overall picture, reducing the Islamic State's territorial control was the only real means of cutting access to the multiple new channels of financing it had acquired through its conquests in 2014. For example, the group could not generate revenue through formal taxes imposed on civilian populations under its rule without territorial control, nor could it generate revenue through sales of crude oil without territorial control of oil wells. Despite the Islamic State's loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, concerns remain about the group's financing on a more global scale.
Yet rather than focus on this policy angle of countering terrorist financing, this paper looks at an important policy pursued by the group that underpinned some of the newer means the group had acquired to finance itself: namely, the confiscation of mobile and immobile property, which has implications for justice and accountability.
It is important to stress from the outset that confiscation was not solely a means of generating revenue for the group through renting out, selling or auctioning real estate, as will be shown in this paper that draws on internal Islamic State administrative documents and the group's own literature. Rather, confiscation was also important as a means of providing property for the group's members and their families to dwell in, and an examination of relevant documents in this context may also be helpful for prosecutors in determining membership of the organisation.
This paper's examination of the group's confiscations of property will be divided into two main parts. First, it will consider the group's justifications for confiscating property. These justifications can primarily be understood as targeting perceived enemies of the Islamic State and Sunni Muslims (the only legitimate denomination of Islam in the Islamic State's eyes, and the denomination whose interests it claims to represent). These enemies are deemed unworthy of rights to property and life under the Islamic State, and thus confiscation of their property is a natural and logical outcome of the group's worldview. But confiscations also targeted the properties of those the group deemed Sunni Muslims, but were outside the group's territories: a move that was effectively justified as a 'temporary' measure, which would be more controversial in the context of the group's ideology.
Second, this paper will examine how the group made use of this confiscated property in various ways for generating revenue. In other words, this paper concentrates on the link between the group's ideology and its policy of confiscation within the context of war crimes committed by the group, rather than focusing on determining the relative importance-qualitatively or quantitatively- of confiscation to the group's financing.
In order to ensure that the information upon which the conclusions are based is as reliable as possible and can be used by prosecutors in the context of justice and accountability, this paper primarily relies on internal Islamic State records and the group's own literature (propaganda and otherwise) to elucidate the group's justifications for and practices of confiscation. This is not to discount the potential value of other methods of gathering information such as conducting interviews with victims or witnesses, but the latter poses multiple limitations (e.g. inaccurate descriptions and exaggerations of confiscation policies, or fading of memories with the passage of time) and seems unlikely to add more information beyond what can be found in internal documents and the group's own literature.
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Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an Arabic translator and editor at Castlereagh Associates, a Middle East-focused consultancy, and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He runs an independent newsletter at aymennaltamimi.substack.com.