The Weekly Standard quotes Rafik Hariri Center Resident Fellow Faysal Itani on the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham:
What’s extraordinary about ISIS is not the violence. Indeed, the reason Zawahiri denounced the group was not its cruelty but its refusal to follow his orders and merge with another extremist organization. In other words, the dispute between ISIS and al Qaeda was not about the conduct of the former but about who was in charge, a regular feature of regional power dynamics.
Nor are ISIS’s money-raising schemes especially novel in the Middle East. As the Wall Street Journalreported last week, the organization’s key source of income is oil, especially in the Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqa and the Iraqi province of Nineveh. “They sell it to opposition groups, to the tribes, back to the Syrian regime, or on the Iraqi black market,” says Faysal Itani, an ISIS expert at the Atlantic Council. The other main source of revenue is taxation, or rather, extortion. As one source in the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s so-called capital, explained to us, merchants pay 3,000 Syrian pounds (close to $20) every two months. The kidnapping of foreigners or wealthy Syrians for ransom also brings in millions.
And yet it’s true that ISIS is not exactly what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the Middle East of late. “This is not a classic insurgency,” says Itani, “or a non-state actor. Rather, it’s a state-building organization.” ISIS’s effort right now is to secure borders and lines of communication. Comparing ISIS’s project with al Qaeda’s, Itani notes that bin Laden’s logic was to draw the United States into conflict with the Muslim world in the hope of making the people so disgusted with their regimes that al Qaeda could take over. ISIS is different: It aims to take territory, hold it, and build a state. That is, at a moment when much of the rest of the Middle East is moving toward chaos, the Islamic State is consolidating.