Islamic State terrorist (file)
Islamic State terrorist (file)Reuters

The Western world has sought to physically hinder Islamic State (ISIS), the terrorist organization too extreme for Al Qaeda which has burst the Middle East asunder, through a series of targeted airstrikes. 

But last week, an additional campaign was launched to break the terror organization's hold on the region: an economic one. 

ISIS is widely known as the richest terror group worldwide, revealed earlier this year to have roughly two billion dollars from looting alone. According to a Huffington Post expose, the group makes - on average - three million dollars per day. 

The Counter Extremism Project seeks to change all that. The project, which was launched in New York last week, aims to expose the inner economic workings of ISIS and related groups and to stop its campaigning through social media networks. 

Fran Townsend, the Project's leader and an adviser to former US president, George W. Bush, noted that it is money - not power - which makes terror organizations go 'round. 

"Money is the oxygen of terror organizations," Townsend stated, in an interview with Walla! News. "ISIS makes millions every day through gas sales, and that money allows it to continue fighting, and to strengthen the 'state' it claims it has in Syria." 

"It is most important for them to produce very high quality propaganda, by which they recruit new fighters and collect donations," she continued. "Without this regular income, they will be a significantly weaker organization." 

The main problem, according to Townsend, is that today - while the struggle against ISIS has been made a top international priority - there is simply not enough information about its sources of revenue.

"We understand they sell oil to private companies in neighboring countries ," she noted, "and of course they make a lot of money charging ransom for hostages."

"The main challenge is to reveal who meets them, who engages in economic relations with them - and then to put pressure on governments and private companies to stop their direct or indirect links with this gang," she added. 

Economic warfare: not without precedent

Townsend believes this is possible, based on past experience with Iran.

In recent years, she has been active in an organization called "United Against Nuclear Iran," which has managed to make a series of large companies reduce their economic activities in, and with, the Islamic Republic.

"In operations against Iran's nuclear program, we were able to make important companies in the United States, Europe and even China, to cease engaging in activities that can support the nuclear program or terrorism that Iran is organizing," Townsend stated. "If we work against terrorists using methods similar to those we used against Iran - exposing support networks, putting economic and public pressure on companies and governments to change their ways - I believe we are able to achieve results."

Townsend uses the phrase "Name and Shame" - that is, to reveal who benefits trade with terrorist groups, and use the media and social networks to embarrass them.

The strategy can cause diplomatic havoc, Walla! notes - after the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet revealed that United States Vice President Joe Biden accused Turkey of helping to create ISIS. 

Biden apologized to Turkey only last night (Saturday), clarifying his claims that "serious mistakes" allowed a steady stream of foreign nationals into Syria. 

Townsend declined to refer specifically to Turkey, but noted that the organization is looking to do something similar.

"We are working very hard right now, with experts from several fields, to map and reveal the relationship of the different countries with ISIS," Townsend said. "We will post our findings as they become clearer, and we will set up the necessary means of 'making noise' over the issue."

Civilian resources, civilian liberties

When asked why a private organization is stepping up to take responsibility for ISIS's economic sources, Townsend responded that the issue is a matter of resources.

"I'm sure the government and the intelligence agencies are dealing with this important issue, but our advantage is that we - as an organization of civilian specialists - can use a wide series of resources that the government does not work with," she said. "Moreover, we have more legitimacy to the media to aggressively campaign the issue."

"If we find a company or particular country supports, through indirect and subtle ways, terrorist activity, there will be no political considerations or economic limits to how we alert the public," she continued. "The government, however, can get stuck in the legal red tape, and it's hard to deal with situations that are in a 'gray area."

"We have not been established to replace them, but to help them," she added. 

Townsend also intimated that a media campaign - or economic sanctions - have taken the back seat to the international military campaign against the group. 

"In addition, the government is focused on at the moment on the military aspect, which is very important and requires a lot of attention," she said. "The responsibility of the government is very broad, and much of the time it is only concerned with managing instant crises, like what happened with the Yazidis in Iraq last month."

The ethnic Yazidi have been a prime target for ISIS, and thousands have been killed - and thousands more raped, forced to convert, and displaced - in a systemic campaign of ethnic cleansing on ISIS's part.

"We, by contrast, are completely focused on two very specific issues: finance and online activity." 

Social media: the unseen economic tool

Townsend was also asked why the group links finance and social media. At first glance, the two seem distinctly separate factors in ISIS's methodology: one is focused on sustainability, the other on recruiting. 

"Activity on social networks is currently the most effective way that terror organizations like ISIS recruit new fighters to their ranks, raise funds and spread fear and terror throughout the world," she responded. "Since we launched the initiative, I have been interviewed several times on the subject - and after each interview, I was flooded with hundreds, sometimes even thousands of comments threatening violence, including death threats."

"The impression I got is that they have formed an 'electronic army' - one that, organized and disciplined, spreads hatred to all corners of the globe."

"Without combatting this phenomenon, it is impossible to beat them," she added. 

'Israel can help'

Townsend concluded by noting that Israel, too, can be instrumental in fighting ISIS. 

"I know that Israel has been helping refugees and victims of war at the border in the Golan Heights," she reflected. "Beyond that, I am sure that Israel plays a very significant role in the area of ​​intelligence and counter-terrorism."

Townsend first became aware of Israel's role in the intelligence community during her years serving on the Bush administration. 

"I was not in a senior position in government for several years, but in my time there was no doubt that the best intelligence and the most accurate analysis was in the hands of Israelis," she stated. "I'm sure that Israel could also contribute to hindering the organization economically."

The war against ISIS will be won through economics, not just a military campaign, she said; and Israel could be a part of that. 

"A senior American general who spoke with me on the subject told me similar things," Townsend stated.

"You cannot just kill the dragon, he explained; you must at the same time drain the swamp because otherwise new alligators will emerge."