Murphy's Law: Caliphates Old And New

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September 8, 2021: Since ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) lost control of all its territory in 2017, one lasting relic of that Islamic State was the few gold coins it minted in 2015. This Islamic State currency was based on a standard established in the 7th century by the third caliph Mohammed, Uthman ibn Affan. ISIL planned to mint seven coins, including two gold dinars, worth one and five dinars respectively. Like their 7th century predecessors, the actual value of the two gold and three silver coins would be based on the current value of the precious metals they contained. When minted the ISIL five-dinar coin was made of 21 carat (88 percent pure) gold, weighed about three-quarters of an ounce and worth nearly $700 each when minted. The price of gold fluctuates and was near its historical high in 2015 ($1,350 an ounce), up from $260 in 1970. Recent highs of about $2,100 were reached in 1980 and the mid-2021 price is $1,800. Because of this, gold coins have always been popular in areas or periods where the local economy was in bad shape.

These ancient coins always had historical value but in the 20th century coin collecting became much more common and older or rare gold coins were much sought after and became worth much more than just the value of gold they were made of. The few gold dinars produced by ISIL retained their value and are still being used in eastern Syria, where they were first circulated. The few active ISIL members in eastern Syria favor those civilians and merchants who still have and use these coins. Owners of ISIL dinars find them much more valuable than their intrinsic gold value. Foreign collectors have also been offering higher prices for these rare, although, recent gold coins.

After the ISIL Islamic state reached its maximum size in early 2015, the ISIL caliph and founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, realized, like his 7th Century role model Caliph Affan, that running a caliphate was difficult. Baghdadi was hunted down and cornered by American commandos in 2019. He blew himself up rather than risk capture. Caliph Affan introduced religious and currency reforms but was notoriously corrupt and after twelve years in power there was a rebellion that led to his assassination in 656.

At its peak ISIL controlled four major cities and the results of their social and economic reforms were unpleasant and expected, because they were similar to what happened 1,400 years earlier. ISIL captured the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa (population 500,000) in early 2014 and turned it into their capital. Strict lifestyle rules were imposed and local Christians had to pay an extra tax to avoid persecution. They applied those same rules in the western Iraq city of Falluja (250,000) where they already shared control with local Sunni tribes opposed to the Iraq government and eventually ISIL as well. In mid-2014 ISIL took Mosul (two million) in northwestern Iraq. In May 2015 they took Ramadi (200,000) in western Iraq. All four cities already had problems with electricity and water supplies and shaky sewage systems. Many of the inhabitants of these cities fled before or after ISIL arrived. Leaving became more dangerous once armed ISIL men were patrolling the streets and controlling the roads in and out of town. In Ramadi more than half the population was gone when ISIL arrived and that was largely because details of what would happen when ISIL took over were widely known. In short, nothing good.

ISIL enforced the strictest lifestyle rules, based on an interpretation of Islamic scripture that is more hostile to most modern tech than al Qaeda ever was. That meant no music, video or anything that could be identified as “Western” or alien to 7th century Moslems, Exceptions were made, grudgingly, when it was necessary to keep ISIL members alive. While Western aid groups were banned, Western medical supplies were allowed in. ISIL members got priority. Even Moslem medical personnel who stayed had to prove they were Islamic enough to meet ISIL standards. Those who could not, and that meant most of them, were controlled by threats and treated like prison trustees. Before ISIL arrived most university educated professionals fled, or tried to. Those captured while trying to flee were often killed on the spot. The few medical personnel who remained could barely care for ISIL leaders and ISIL fighters suffering from severe combat wounds.

Getting electricity, water and sanitation networks operating was a priority but crippled by lack of supplies (especially fuel) and spare parts as well as people qualified to repair, maintain or operate these utilities. Anywhere else in the Middle East foreign suppliers and experts would be called upon as necessary. That was not Islamic, according to ISIL, and instead locals with some skills had to step forward and try to cope. A call was put out for Moslem technical experts elsewhere in the world to come to the new caliphate and use their skills to make things work. Few qualified foreign Moslems arrived and the result was intermittent water supplies, unreliable sanitation systems and lots of people using portable generators for power or just living in the dark like their 7th century ancestors.

Many of the civilians who stayed behind managed to adapt and an economy of sorts was created. In late 2014 ISIL sought to create their own currency (gold coins) but that did not get far. In practice any currency, local or Western, that had established value was used. This meant the ISIL economy used lots of dollars. “Taxes'' were collected in a medieval fashion that could best be described (in modern terms) as opportunistic extortion. Dollars were preferred because smugglers could not use Iraqi or ISIL currency. This problem was addressed with lots of looting when ISIL took control of new territory. Banks containing cash were a favorite target.

While much was made of Moslems, especially Western ones, trying to get to the ISIL Islamic State, the reality was that more people already there were trying to get out. In many cases escape was a matter of life and death because the collapse of the medical care system has left most people with few useful options if they got sick or injured. ISIL considers such misfortunes “the will of God '' and complainers are regarded as heretics.

By mid-2016 the ISIL Islamic State had lost over half of the territory it seized by early 2015. ISIL income from Syria and Iraq was down nearly 60 percent. In 2016 personnel losses were heavy as well, meaning ISIL control was concentrated in their cities and not the rural territory in between. ISIL was under the most pressure in Iraq but Syria was no longer a safe place for ISIL men to seek refuge. Getting there meant encountering government forces or hostile militias. The growing number of ISIL deserters provided more details about what was happening in ISIL controlled territory. Increasingly effective air strikes were possible because of more local informants as well as relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement) that ignored the use of human shields. Aerial bombings more frequently hit ISIL leaders and caused a lot more ISIL casualties in general. ISIL leaders were, at least according to deserters, often visibly uneasy and some were publicly executed for various failings. Lower ranking ISIL men were worse off, in part because of reduced pay or no pay at all. Even essential supplies like food and ammo were not always available. The more frequent use of public executions was driving more ISIL fighters and support personnel away even as it became more difficult and dangerous to leave, and hardly any new people were seeking to live in the new caliphate.

Most ISIL controlled territory was in eastern Syria and western Iraq because these areas had a largely Sunni Arab population but were also mostly desert or semi-desert. Most of the population was concentrated in or near towns and cities along the few rivers. After 2015 ISIL was unable to take and hold large cities. ISIL control of Raqqa and Mosul was lost by 2017.

In 2016 ISIL lost control of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq and desperately tried to retain control over some of the roads crossing the border. Without control of those roads ISIL could not quickly move anything between Iraq and Syria. By 2016 Mosul was basically cut off from the outside world and Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria and the ISIL capital, was also being surrounded. Losing control of so many roads meant it was easier to concentrate a very large force against ISIL defenders in a town or military base and quickly destroy the defenders no matter how fanatic they were.

By 2018 ISIL was down to a few thousand active members organized into several dozen separate groups united by nostalgia and the millions of dollars that had been retained and exported. This money was laundered via Turkish and other foreign banks. Access to those foreign bank accounts was controlled by a few trusted ISIL officials. Captured ISIL documents revealed that even the most fanatical Islamic terror groups had problems with corruption on a scale the 7th century caliphs were familiar with. Western counterterrorism organizations put more efforts into disrupting the ISIL finances which forced the remaining ISIL members to resort to extortion and kidnapping to pay the bills. History does repeat itself, especially in the Middle East.

 


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