Oil sales, extortion, and looting have received large amounts of attention as tactics used by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) to generate revenue. A study published in the October issue of Food Policy highlights the need to also consider how a less explored strategy--agricultural production--also contributes to the profits of ISIS.

“We didn’t approach this from a political perspective,” says Hadi Jaafar, an assistant professor of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. He co-authored the paper with Eckart Woertz, a senior researcher at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs. Rather than examining the group’s politics and terrorist tactics, the researchers wanted to shift the focus to their objective of becoming a state. To do so, Woertz says there needs to be an understanding of where a state’s income comes from, whether that funding is sustainable, and what may happen if its revenue is exhausted.

In 2013 and 2014, the ISIS occupied large portions Iraq’s Ninewa Province and the Jazirah region of Syria, both known breadbaskets in the region. While it is not clear whether their occupation was strategic for the agricultural value, the usage of a book called The Management of Savagery by ISIS is notable. The jihadist manual serves to instruct how to build a statelike structure and recognizes the role agriculture could play in establishing a functional caliphate.

“Agriculture is a direct funding source of ISIS and has a relative limited amount of attention compared to oil. I would argue oil has attracted far too much attention compared to its current importance,” says Woertz. He points out that ISIS oil production has not been that significant in comparison to regional standards and refining it requires a sophisticated knowledge due to its lower quality. Further, oil production levels by ISIS may have been exaggerated and also appear to be declining.

Jaafar adds that food contrasts from other revenue sources. He tells me, “Agriculture is not only an income source. It kind of provides social support for ISIS in areas, because when farmers plant, they operate and are doing business as usual in these areas. This can be good for ISIS.” It also has more continuity and reliability than black market sales of antiquities or ransom and the image of a food secure area that is capable of feeding a region can also be used as propaganda.  

Obtaining accurate information about the economy of ISIS occupied territories can be challenging, so the researchers used an innovative approach to gather data on agricultural production in the region. In addition to statistically controlling for rainfall to isolate the conflict’s impact on crops, they used remote sensing analysis combined with pre-conflict data from governments in Syria and Iraq and an enhanced vegetation index from satellite imagery over irrigated and cultivated areas of both countries. “From this relationship, you can estimate with a strong degree of certainty the annual amount of production for those agricultural areas,” explains Jaafar. “We applied this relationship to the years after the war where data was not available (2014, 2015, and Spring 2016) and then came up with the figures of production.”

Despite the instability and conflict, the researchers’ data indicated agricultural production has been sustained in ISIS held territories. Although production of summer irrigated crops--primarily cotton--had declined, winter crops such as wheat and barley fared better. Woertz and Jaafar estimate there were 2.45 million tons of wheat produced in ISIS territories in 2015, providing nearly the same value as oil during its highest production time, contributing $56 million from their taxation and even creating a surplus (though part of that is attributed to the population decline in the area). 

Of the 2.45 million tons of wheat produced, 0.85 million tons were consumed domestically. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly how the remaining 1.6 million tons of excess wheat were used due to the political nature of the question. It’s known that ISIS trades oil and gas with other rebel groups and the Syrian government. Expert knowledge suggests this may also occur with surplus wheat.
The researchers’ findings underscore the importance of understanding the critical role of agriculture as a funding source of ISIS. As Woertz notes, they also emphasize the need to anticipate the region’s future food security. Quality of seeds decline after three to four cycles, meaning the agricultural system is likely to collapse and contribute to the unsustainability of the ISIS economy. He says, “Our argument is that planning for post-ISIS reconstruction period food security issues in agriculture should have a high priority. Agricultural systems, especially irrigated agriculture, have suffered massively and need to be rebuilt in both countries. It is important to keep this in mind.”