The Economic Incentives of ISIS: A Roadblock for Future DDR Programs

The Economic Incentives of ISIS: A Roadblock for Future DDR Programs

By Colby Silver

The economic aspects of armed conflict and their relation to successful DDR should not, and cannot, be ignored. This issue has become particularly relevant with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Atlantic recently quoted a man in southern Syria as saying, “ISIS controls every detail of the economy. Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.”[1] The man goes on to tell how when ISIS arrived in his hometown the militants took complete control of the local economy, looted, confiscated property, and took over local business networks. In other parts of Syria ISIS controls trading routes, imposes heavy taxes on utilities like water and electricity, and controls the prices of consumer goods.[2] What ISIS has done is construct a lawless war economy, designed with the sole purpose of funding itself and providing economic incentives to its militants.

As the article points out, many of ISIS’s economic tactics are being used to compel locals to join the extremist group. Looking forward, there is the threat that this illicit economic system will become entrenched in the region, creating a system of profit for IS combatants that will make membership in the movement appealing, or even necessary out of economic necessity. This situation will provide a challenge to any future attempted DDR programs that will have to take into careful consideration the economic incentives of IS combatants. The destruction caused by the wars in Syria and Iraq and the spread of the Islamic State have decimated local economies, leaving the war economy as the only realistic source of livelihood.

Although it is difficult to envisage any form of DDR program targeting ISIS at this point in time, any potential program in the future will need to look carefully at the economic incentives of ISIS’s “Caliphate” and consider what needs to be undertaken to provide equal or greater economic incentives within a stable, licit economy.

It is interesting to consider foreign fighters in an economic context as well. It is widely agreed that foreign fighters have migrated in large numbers to join ISIS over the past two years due to a combination of radicalization perhaps catalyzed in part by disenfranchisement at home, leaving one to consider whether more economic opportunities at home would discourage any kind of susceptibility to ISIS’s propaganda. It is hard to say. Due to the violence of the Islamic State and the apparent power of its ideology and propaganda, undertaking DDR would be a daunting task and the program would no doubt have to occur on many different levels, tailored to the experiences and needs of various different groups of combatants and non-combatants involved with the group. However, one likely universal incentive for either sustained conflict or peace is which life offers better economic opportunities,  life as an IS member/combatant or a life as a civilian in a failed state. At the moment, the economic incentives of IS seem to be considerably stronger.

[1] Joanna Paraszcuk, “The ISIS Economy: Crushing Taxes and High Unemployment: how the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic,” The Atlantic, September 2015. Available at:

[2] Ibid.

Mali & DDR

By: Sam Trudeau

The ongoing situation in Mali seems to encompass many of the most pressing challenges facing DDR programs around the world. The United Nations peacekeeping force deployed to help stabilize the country is still basically operating in a conflict zone, despite attempts to enforce a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. State-building and peace-building operations like DDR are therefore undertaken in extremely volatile environments prone to sporadic surges of violence that threaten reversing initial DDR initiatives like setting up cantonment sites for former fighters and training and supervising mixed-patrols. Mali’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) involves three main although relatively fragmented groups: the Malian government, the pro-Tuareg separatist Coordination of Azawad Movement (CMA), and the pro-Government “Platform” which consist of Tuareg and Arab militias. Although radicalized actors such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, various local Al Qaeda offshoots such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar Al Dine as well as scores of foreign fighters were initially defeated and pushed out of Northern Mali by a French military operation, these armed actors have to some extent been able to regroup and resume operations. Criminal groups vying for smuggling routes have also participated in the violence. Favoring a military approach towards radical groups and excluding their combatants from DDR initiatives creates difficult dynamics on ground. Excluded from Mali’s CPA, they still retain the capability to act as spoilers to peace-building efforts. Besides the presence of radicalized fighters, the secessionist aspirations of the CMA and the central government’s apparent refusal to accept autonomous Tuareg governance in parts of the North have led to a political deadlock regarding the future of the CPA and efforts at reconciliation. The contested legitimacy of the political components of the peace plan seem to create real limitations to what DDR efforts might actually be able accomplish. From this perspective, the peace-building mandate enacted by the United Nations Security Council might to a certain extent be too ambitious given the realities on the ground and ultimately set DDR efforts up to fail. The United Nations Secretary General’s latest report on Mali already outlines some of the difficulties faced by DDR initiatives. Efforts to estimate the number of fighters on all sides eligible for demobilization into cantonment have been slowed down by a lack of cooperation as well as the large number of fighters. Although the number of belligerents designated for cantonment by all sides was initially expected to account for 6 000 combatants, the CMA has itself presented a list of more than 18 000 fighters. The pro-government Platform meanwhile had by the spring of 2016 still not provided its own list of fighters. Another important impediment to DDR efforts in Mali has been the state and international community’s inability to foster development in northern parts of the country. Economic disenfranchisement and a dire lack of basic services through Northern Mali is often identified in public opinion surveys as important driver of the conflict. The success DDR efforts, especially its longterm objectives, are therefore very much dependent on the state and international community’s ability to meet the needs of the populations in the North and create opportunities for sustainable development.

Living Conflict: The Current Challenge of DDR

By Timothy Koch, graduate student of International Affairs at the New School

Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) in the modern age is facing a number of specific challenges that must be addressed in order to maximize safety and promote success rates.  One of the most important challenges that modern day DDR programs will face is their operation in areas where war and fighting is still occurring.  This new aspect presents a new and life threatening dynamic of modern DDR programs and will arguably be the most difficult challenge they face.

Previously, teams had operated in zones when a peace process was currently being implemented or had been implemented in the past; however this is no longer the case. DDR teams have never before operated under this magnitude of stress and danger, and in order to promote safety and success this challenge must be addressed head on. It is imperative that the teams gain specific and intrinsic knowledge of the conflict zone and general dynamic before and during the process.  These teams must familiarize themselves with the nature of the conflict, its actors, and the current dynamic of the conflict itself.  DDR teams have had these responsibilities before; however now it is important to remember that the conflict is not stagnant and can be perpetual and ever changing.  They must gain this knowledge and know that at any second the dynamic could shift and send their team and their own lives into a more dangerous situation.

The knowledge that is gained allows DDR teams to have more tools available to them in order to begin disarmament. They can offer incentives to turn in weapons and thus informally begin the peace process themselves. This will an easier route to a formal peace process and negotiations as once certain groups begin to disarm others may begin to follow suit making disarmament as whole more feasible.

The dynamic field of DDR is adapting to the challenges that are met on the ground and the teams must constantly remember that in order to ensure their safety and to promote success as much as they can. An environment with a lack of a formal peace process is a scary and daunting place and operators are right to think that strategies that had applied before could would not apply to their current situation.   Only one strategy can truly be prescribed to any and all DDR operations. It is the strategy of gaining knowledge beforehand and to continue to learn while on the ground.  Only then will safety be maximized and this is completely necessary in the world of DDR today.