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.

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