A small but steady flow of money to ISIS from rich individuals in the Gulf continues, say current and former U.S. officials, with Qataris the biggest suppliers. These rich individuals have long served as "angel investors," as one expert put it, for the most violent militants in the region, providing the “seed money” that helped launch ISIS and other jihadi groups.
No one in the U.S. government is putting a number on the current rate of donations, but former U.S. Navy Admiral and NATO Supreme Commander James Stavridis says the cash flow from private donors is significant now and was even more significant in the early fund-raising done by ISIS and al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front.
"These rich Arabs are like what 'angel investors' are to tech start-ups, except they are interested in starting up groups who want to stir up hatred," said Stavridis, now the dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. "Groups like al-Nusrah and ISIS are better investments for them. The individuals act as high rollers early, providing seed money. Once the groups are on their feet, they are perfectly capable of raising funds through other means, like kidnapping, oil smuggling, selling women into slavery, etc."
Stavridis and other current U.S. officials suggest that the biggest share of the individual donations supporting ISIS and the most radical groups comes from Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia, and that the Qatari government has done less to stop the flow than its neighbors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. One U.S. official said the Saudis are "more in line with U.S. foreign policy" than the Qataris.
Groups like ISIS and al-Nusrah employ fundraisers who meet with wealthy Sunni Arabs. Most of the Arab states have laws prohibiting such fundraising, but U.S. officials say the Qataris do not strictly enforce their laws.
A U.S. intelligence official said the amount provided by wealthy individuals is small relative to the group’s other sources, but admitted that the flow continues. “Although ISIS probably still receives donations from patrons in some of the Gulf countries," said the official, “any outside funding represents a small fraction of ISIS’s total annual income.”
The U.S. believes ISIS is taking in about $1 million a day from all sources. The largest source of cash now, say U.S. officials, is oil smuggling along the Turkish border, with ISIS leaders willing to sell oil from conquered Syrian and Iraqi fields for as little as $25 a barrel, a quarter of the going world price. Other previously lucrative sources, like kidnapping for ransom, are not what they once were. As one U.S. official put it, "there are only so many rich Syrian businessmen." Similarly, there are fewer banks to loot.
Adm. Stavridis, author of the forthcoming book "Accidental Admiral," suggests that the U.S. must cut off as much funding as it can, calling cash flow the "fourth front" in the war against ISIS, along with helping the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi military and carrying out a bombing campaign.
As long ago as last March, before ISIS's military advances, a senior Treasury Department official spoke publicly about "permissive jurisdictions" that were allowing fundraising on behalf of ISIS and other groups.
"A number of fundraisers operating in more permissive jurisdictions -- particularly in Kuwait and Qatar -- are soliciting donations to fund extremist insurgents, not to meet legitimate humanitarian needs,” said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. "The recipients of these funds are often terrorist groups, including al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, al-Nusrah Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIS]."
David Phillips, a former senior advisor to the State Department on Iraq and now director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University, said the bottom line, financially and politically, is that "wealthy Arabs are playing a dirty double game. “
“Their governments claim to oppose ISIS,” he said, “while individuals continue funding terrorist activities."
The financial help from "rich patrons," as U.S. intelligence calls them, was also noted this week by Iranian officials, who have been excluded from participating in anti-ISIS discussions. High-ranking officials complained publicly Wednesday about the early role of Arab states in building opposition to the Assad regime to Syria, and blamed them for the consequences.
On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, in comments to the Council of Foreign Relations, said it was not realistic to expect those who have helped fund ISIS and other groups to now oppose them.
Zarif called the recently convened Paris conference on fighting ISIS a "coalition of repenters" who are only now seeing that they have created a monster. The Gulf states were among the countries attending the summit.
"Most participants in that -- in that meeting in one form or another provided support to ISIS in the course of its creation and upbringing and expansion, actually at the end of the day, creating a Frankenstein that came to haunt its creators," Zarif told the CFR. "So this group has been in existence for a long time. It has been supported, it has been provided for in terms of arms, money, finances by a good number of U.S. allies in the region."
In an interview earlier the same day with Ann Curry of NBC News, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was just as emphatic, asking a string of rhetorical questions.
"Who financed them? Who provided them with money? It's really clear -- where do the weapons come from?" asked Rouhani. "The terrorists who have come from all the countries, from which channel [did they enter], where were they trained, in which country were they trained? I don't think it is somehow difficult to identify this information.”
But U.S. officials suggest that as the group has expanded -- and its range of enemies has broadened – so have its costs, which could make the group vulnerable.
"Is [the ISIS financial model] sustainable?" asked Stavridis. "The bigger they get, is that their downfall?"
The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Qatar has previously strongly denied supporting ISIS "in any way," including funding.