ISIS Brings Business Acumen To Violent Jihad : Parallels ISIS issues annual reports and launched a Twitter app, and its financiers track money flows on spreadsheets. It's professionalized its operations while inflicting more casualties than al-Qaida.
NPR logo

ISIS Brings Business Acumen To Violent Jihad

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
ISIS Brings Business Acumen To Violent Jihad

ISIS Brings Business Acumen To Violent Jihad

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


ISIS is proving to be a disciplined operation. The militant group has borrowed organizational tools from the corporate world. For the past two years, ISIS has issued an annual report, it's launched a Twitter app with advertisers. In the second part of our series, examining how ISIS works - NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on the professional smarts the group has brought to violent Jihad.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: To understand how different the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is from most other terrorist organizations, you need to go back to 2010 and look at how the group retaliated after U.S. forces killed two of its leaders.

PATRICK JOHNSTON: One of the first actions, sort of after the dust settled, was to commit one of these, you know, multi-city, coordinated suicide attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Patrick Johnston. And he's been researching ISIS at the RAND Corporation.

JOHNSTON: They really demonstrated, I think, how different they are from other groups in terms of their capabilities. I mean, they've killed more than twice as many people annually, according to the Global Terrorism Database, than al-Qaida itself.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Johnston is studying recently declassified documents that provide a window into the organization. He says what he's seen so far shows ISIS to be tremendously business savvy. One example - the group decided to pay less than the going wage for its fighters. ISIS's calculation - the lower pay will attract men who are more ideologically committed, not just in the fight for the money. The document show careful accounting of their various streams of income - stolen cars, bank robberies, extortion of local businesses, oil revenues. It also showed that...

JOHNSTON: All of the, kind of, local branches of the subsidiaries of al-Qaida in Iraq or the Islamic State agreed to send 20 percent of all of their revenues up to what was called the general treasury.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The group's financiers keep track of money flows on Excel spreadsheets. And an annual report, which has come out publicly two years running, provides an atlas of their attacks with body counts.

JOHNSTON: This is like "Mad Max" meets the Mafia meets the United Way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate is a former White House and Treasury official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

JUAN ZARATE: So it operates an oil economy and a war economy on the ground. It has learned to extort and to tax those that are operating in the territory they control or doing business through it. And they've taken advantage of the fact that Syria is attracting charitable donations for those who want to see the fall of Assad and the end of suffering.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that explains the business side of ISIS's success. Less obvious is the reason why the group has succeeded on the battlefield. Certainly, ill-prepared Iraqi forces who dropped their weapons and ran helped ISIS pick up territory so quickly. But ISIS is also running itself like a military organization, says former CIA Deputy Director and now Georgetown professor, Paul Pillar.

PAUL PILLAR: The advances that we have seen in Anbar and elsewhere in western Iraq have not just been ISIS fighters, that are estimated to number about 3,000 or so, but also various other Sunni militias and fighters, including old Bathist types who never gave up.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Analysts say that ISIS is listening to those military professionals in its ranks. And that's showing up in the strategic decisions the group is making. For example, this week, instead of pushing straight to Baghdad, ISIS seized all the official border crossings with Syria. Doing so will help ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, make the case that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is more than just a name - it's a reality on the ground. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.


And tomorrow on Morning Edition, Dina looks at the clash between the leader of ISIS and the head of al-Qaida.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.