Against 'Islamic State' Militants, Treasury May Need To Try New Tools : Parallels In combating militants, one weapon is cutting off the groups' funding from charities or outside donors. But the "Islamic State" gets its money from other means and may be immune to U.S. techniques.

Against 'Islamic State' Militants, Treasury May Need To Try New Tools

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


There is one weapon that's worked in the fight against terrorist organizations - cutting off their funding. Terrorist groups tend to get their money from outside donors or charities, but the group that now calls itself the Islamic State and controls areas of Syria and Iraq, doesn't get its money that way. So the methods the U.S. Treasury has used to fight terrorist groups in the past won't work as well. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Right after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration created an intelligence unit within the Treasury Department - its job - to use secret information to track money flowing to terrorists and criminal organizations and then try to stop it.

MATTHEW LEVITT: Different targets will require different types of tool sets.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Levitt was the deputy chief of the Treasury's office of intelligence and analysis.

LEVITT: One is trying to stem the flow of funds, drying the swamp. The other is to try and make it so that they can't access money, place money in the formal or informal financial system, can't move money. That's a success as well.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Typically, terrorist groups get donations get from overseas. The Islamic State initially got some support from Gulf nations including Kuwait and Qatar. Those funds arrive through regional banks or the informal hawala system of transferring money.

In the past, Treasury officials have successfully convinced countries to stop donations - or the Treasury convinces regional banks to crimp those funding streams. But this time, Levitt says, the Treasury will have to do things slightly differently. That's because the Islamic State makes its money through smuggling, kidnapping for ransom and extorting local businesses. And all of this is taking place in parts of Syria and Iraq that the group controls, which Levitt says, makes it hard for the Treasury to step in.

LEVITT: It's not going to be enough to hopefully push them back militarily. We're also going to have to do a whole lot more to deny them the ability to have access, primarily through criminal enterprise, to continue financial independence.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What that means is trying to wrestle territory from the group's control. In some areas of Syria and Iraq, the group's control is all but absolute. Consider the Iraqi city of Mosul. Last Friday, the head of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, suddenly appeared in Mosul's Grand Mosque to lead the evening prayers.


ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: A camera crew from his group recorded the event. It was the first time al-Baghdadi had been seen in public in years. There's a $10 million bounty on his head.


AL-BAGHDADI: (Singing in foreign language).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yet he seemed unruffled. He sat quietly for prayers and then spoke to the group for nearly 15 minutes. So why wasn't al-Baghdadi more concerned that someone might tweet his whereabouts or call the authorities? Partly because, according to U.S. officials, early that same afternoon network communications in Mosul - cell phones, telephones, Internet lines - suddenly went dead. U.S. officials say they don't think that was a coincidence. The Taliban used to do the same things in areas it controlled in Afghanistan to make U.S. targeting more difficult. The Islamic State isn't just controlling communications in Mosul, it's controlling the city's economy.

Juan Zarate used to work in the Treasury's intelligence office and has written a book called "Treasury's War."

JUAN ZARATE: When a group like this is operating and has found a way to efficiently leverage resources at hand and on the ground, that means you have to dislodge them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Something that financial experts aren't equipped to do.

ZARATE: The Treasury Department can't fly in Treasury paratroopers into a territory that a terrorist organization controls and sees their cash or take hold of their property.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And because the U.S. military has only a few hundred troops there, that means either Iraqi forces or local Iraqis will have to defeat the Islamic State. Zarate says he doesn't see that happening any time soon. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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 an NPR contractor. 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.