THE BLOG

A Net Assessment Approach to ISIS: Bash the Cash

ISIS has rapidly emerged as a deadly threat to stability in Iraq. Much of the debate over how to respond focuses on either ISIS or US & Allied capabilities. A Net Assessment perspective, which looks at the strategic match between the two sides' strengths and weakness, suggests a number of innovative ways to reduce the ISIS threat.

Using a system based on a Ponzi Scheme- ISIS gobbles up fresh resources at high velocity to support its rapid advance. This Pyramid Game represents a pronounced strength of the organization, allowing it to have a reach that greatly exceeds its organic capacity. It also represents a weakness. The way to hurt a Ponzi Scheme is to slow down its intake of new resources and force it to exist on its actual capabilities, which can lead it to collapse on itself from over-extension.

Highly effective at generating revenue, ISIS obtains resources through a number of illicit means. Robbing banks and kidnapping ransoms provides it with rich cash reserves. In addition, ISIS gains revenue from charging taxes on travel along roads in the parts of Syria and Iraq it controls. Finally, and most critically, ISIS collects considerable revenue from selling oil on the black market. On the other side of the coin, the US and its Allies have substantial global financial, technological and military advantages over ISIS. A net assessment approach compares the Allies' capabilities with the revenue mechanisms of ISIS, suggesting two key responses.

First, Iraq should change the color of the Dinar (its currency). People in Iraq would have a brief window to exchange their old money at state-controlled locations before that currency is declared null and void. Changing the color of money and requiring people to justify the exchange of large sums at official sites is a tried-and-true method for dealing with the black market in times of war and military occupation. Countries that want to support the fight against ISIS without employing military force can print its new currency. A currency exchange would greatly undermine the ability of ISIS to fund its rapid expansion and reduce, if not eliminate, the substantial cash reserves it has accumulated.

Second, the Allies can abate ISIS oil funding as well as road-taxation by targeting tanker trucks. Unlike pipelines that are controlled by governments and their corporate interests, road-based tankers (and their improvised stand-ins), provide a way for ISIS to transport substantial quantities of oil to the black market. These tankers however are identifiable by US airborne sensors and can be destroyed by drones, planes and missiles. In addition, like the mobile refineries the US recently attacked (and unlike their larger refineries in urban areas), these tankers often travel through remote areas where their destruction would have minimal impact on the civilian population. 100% destruction is likely impossible as there is a large supply of tankers. The initial goal would be to up the costs of driving in order to force ISIS to man its tanker fleet with fighters- thereby weakening its combat capacity and slowing down its advance. These attacks would also decrease movement along the road system and reduce the taxes ISIS can extort.

The US and its Allies have military superiority over ISIS, but using million dollar missiles to blow up hundred dollar tents represents a bad net-exchange. A net assessment approach that contrasts the strength and weaknesses of ISIS and Allied capabilities shows that there are critical actions short of boots-on-the-ground that can dramatically degrade the ability of ISIS to support its rapid expansion and potentially lead to its inward collapse.