Report

U.S. Slaps Sanctions on Islamic State’s Global Network

Washington lays out new details on the Islamic State's reach as world leaders at the U.N. seek a winning strategy to countering extremism.

Members of the Iraqi paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units celebrate with a flag of the Islamic State (IS) group after retaking the village of Albu Ajil, near the city of Tikrit, from the jihadist group, on March 9, 2015. Some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and the increasingly influential paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, have been involved in a week-old operation to recapture Tikrit, one of the jihadists' main hubs since they overran large parts of Iraq nine months ago.  AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units celebrate with a flag of the Islamic State (IS) group after retaking the village of Albu Ajil, near the city of Tikrit, from the jihadist group, on March 9, 2015. Some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and the increasingly influential paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, have been involved in a week-old operation to recapture Tikrit, one of the jihadists' main hubs since they overran large parts of Iraq nine months ago. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

In its latest effort to choke an apparently rapidly expanding Islamic State, the U.S. on Tuesday slapped sanctions on 25 people and five groups associated with the Sunni extremist network in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The sanctions came right as 100 countries and 130 civil society groups huddled at the United Nations to try and better coordinate efforts to counter violent extremism.

The sanctions, imposed by the Treasury Department and the State Department, target militants in the Caucasus, the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, all of which the U.S. government now describes as being in the orbit of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.

“As ISIL’s tentacles reach into other regions, the United States is increasing our counterterrorism cooperation with partners like Tunisia,” President Barack Obama told the counterterrorism conference Tuesday. “We’re boosting our support to Nigeria and its neighbors as they push back against Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to ISIL. And we’re creating a new clearinghouse to better coordinate the world’s support for countries’ counterterrorism programs so that our efforts are as effective as possible.”

The administration’s targeting of diverse extremists who have only nominal or self-declared ties to Islamic State, which is based in Iraq and Syria, suggests that U.S. counterterrorism officials have shifted their appraisal of the terrorist group’s global reach. Earlier this year, officials debated whether the so-called regional “branches” of the Islamic State should really be considered part and parcel of the main network.

Some of the sanctions targets also seem to indicate closer ties between figures linked to the Islamic State and to al Qaeda, two extremist groups at odds with each other on multiple fronts in the Middle East. The Treasury Department describes Yemeni national Mu’tassim Yahya ‘Ali al-Rumaysh, for example, as an individual who has provided financial support and helped shepherd foreign fighters to the Islamic State. At the same time, he has also held membership in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. In 2013, Rumaysh “coordinated” with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Nusra Front to “facilitate the travel of ISIL members,” according to a Treasury fact sheet — a rare instance of al Qaeda-Islamic State coordination.

Those just added to the sanctions list include citizens from Britain, France, Russia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia. The groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations include regional affiliates in a diverse set of regions from Algeria to Indonesia to the Caucasus region to the Sinai Peninsula.

The new round of sanctions will put up barriers for individuals attempting to travel and make financial transactions, a step that administration officials described as necessary given the Islamic State’s deep pockets. Officials said the group has earned about $500 million a year from oil sales as well as millions of dollars in extortion, taxation, and the sale of looted antiquities, which more than covers the group’s estimated $300 million payroll.

The Islamic State’s apparent global reach underscores the importance of U.S. efforts to tackle the root causes of terrorism rather than only playing whack-a-mole with military strikes. Sarah Sewall, the State Department’s point person for countering violent extremism, told Foreign Policy that the Tuesday summit would look at a “broader range of issues and the preventative work that can be done to make a more comprehensive counterterrorism approach.”

That includes everything from online counter-messaging campaigns, meant to deter the Islamic State’s successful recruiting over Twitter, to law enforcement cooperation and legal reforms, all of which should make it easier for governments to prevent would-be foreign fighters from traveling abroad. Washington has tried for years to counter the narrative of Islamic extremism, with modest to little success. That task has gotten even harder given the social media savvy of new generation militants, especially those in the Islamic State.

But even that kinder and gentler approach has its detractors.

“We are concerned, however, that this [countering violent extremism] strategy risks repeating the same mistakes as other post-9/11 stabilization initiatives: prioritizing securitized responses over investments to address the structural causes of instability,” said the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a coalition that includes humanitarian groups like Mercy Corps and Oxfam.

Separately on Tuesday, the U.N. announced sanctions on four British citizens — a decision that was made at the request of the British government.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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