Militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group are increasingly relying on money raised by extortion of local communities in eastern Syria to fund their terror activity, local officials said.
The practice has largely been taking place in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, according to military officials with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance that has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against IS.
Large parts of Deir el-Zour have been under the control of the SDF since 2019 following a major U.S.-backed military campaign that marked the territorial defeat of IS, also known as ISIS or Daesh.
The terror group has maintained a network of sleeper cells, though, and they have carried out occasional attacks against civilians and SDF fighters throughout the region.
“Daesh uses several ways to demand money from storeowners,” said Turki al-Dhari, an official with the Deir el-Zour Military Council, an SDF-affiliated group. “This includes the use of violence or the threat of violence against civilians to extort money.”
The military official said IS militants also have used this method to collect money from people who work or cooperate with the SDF and its civilian institutions.
“We have seen Daesh doing this activity increasingly in the eastern countryside of Deir el-Zour,” al-Dhari told VOA. “Those who refuse to pay them face punishment — often by bombing their stores, houses or cars.”
Some of the money collected from locals goes to the families of killed IS fighters, al-Dhari added.
Last month, an IS spokesman released an audio message in which he called on his followers around the world to support the group with men and financial donations.
With no physical territory under their control, IS militants in recent months have struggled to secure a steady source of revenue to finance their operations, hence they have resorted to other methods such as extortion, experts said.
According to local news reports, IS networks increasingly have been using messaging applications to target people in Deir al-Zour, demanding Zakat and other forms of Islamic taxation.
Jason Blazakis, a senior research fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center, says IS has proven to be creative in how it uses technology to its advantage.
“The use of messaging applications to target and extort businesses is unsurprising, given ISIS’s history of diversifying its sources of incomes,” he told VOA.
“In the case of the use of messaging apps, this provides the organization instant access to potential victims whilst at the same limiting the exposure of the extorters to law enforcement since they are conducing these activities 'online' and not in physical spaces,” Blazakis said.
SDF officials say their preoccupation with other security threats facing the region, including clashes with Turkish-backed armed groups, has given IS militants more room to operate in eastern Syria.
“Despite losing all the territory they once controlled, Daesh terrorists have been able to continuously regroup and wage attacks on the civilian population and our forces,” said Siyamend Ali, a press officer with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main element within SDF.
“Their extortion activities in the area have increased because of a security gap in some areas of Deir el-Zour,” he told VOA.
With support from the U.S.-led coalition, the SDF recently conducted several counterterrorism operations against IS operatives in the region, including a multi-week campaign inside the al-Hol Camp, where thousands of people live, including families of IS fighters. The operation ended in mid-September with the arrest of more than 200 people.
A Syrian Kurdish official said a U.S. drone strike Monday killed an IS militant in an area of northeast Syria that is under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups. The U.S. hasn’t commented on the reported attack.
Last week, the U.S. military announced that its special forces had conducted a helicopter raid targeting three key IS leaders in a village controlled by Syrian government forces in northeast Syria. One of the militant leaders was killed, while the other two were captured, U.S. Central Command confirmed.
This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish service.