National Security

ISIL Stealing Upwards of $1 Million a Day to Fund Its Terror Regime

ISIL could strike ‘here at home with no warning,’ top counterterror official warns

Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul
Demonstrators chant pro-al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al Qaeda flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul / AP

The United States’ top counterterrorism official warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is stealing some $1 million dollars a day to fund its operations and could have the ability to convince its American sympathizers to conduct terror strikes "here at home with no warning."

Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, recently delivered a candid and at times surprising assessment of ISIL’s capabilities and threat, concluding that the group "poses a direct and significant threat to us," according to a transcript of his remarks before the Brookings Institution.

As President Barack Obama prepares to delivery an address to the nation Wednesday evening about ISIL, Olsen warned in his speech that, "left unchecked, [ISIL] will seek to carry out attacks closer to home."

ISIL already has recruited upwards of 10,000 extremist fighters, including some from America, and currently controls territories "similar in size to the UK," according to Olsen, who discussed the ways in which ISIL funds its terrorist activities.

"ISIL takes in as much as one million dollars per day from illicit oil sales, smuggling, and ransom payments," Olsen said, adding that the group is quickly becoming a threat larger and more equipped than al Qaeda.

As ISIL grows in influence—due in part to its outsized presence on social media sites—the group could persuade sympathizers in the United States to carry out deadly attacks on the homeland.

"We remain mindful of the possibility that an ISIL-sympathizer—perhaps motivated by online propaganda—could conduct a limited, self-directed attack here at home with no warning," Olsen said.

The FBI has already "arrested more than half a dozen individuals seeking to travel from the U.S. to Syria to support ISIL," he warned.

ISIL, Olsen noted in terms not often employed by Obama administration officials, "poses a direct and significant threat to us—and to Iraqi and Syrian civilians—in the region and potentially to us here at home."

The terror group’s major successes have been twofold: It is skilled on the battlefield as well as the propaganda front, Olsen said.

"ISIL has proven to be an effective fighting force," he said. The group "views itself as the new leader of the global jihad. It operates the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group. ISIL disseminates timely, high-quality media content on multiple platforms, including on social media, designed to secure a widespread following for the group."

ISIL has appealed to extremists across the world and seems to have surpassed al Qaeda as the terror group du jour, he said.

"We have seen ISIL use a range of media to tout its military capabilities, executions of captured soldiers, and consecutive battlefield victories," Olsen explained. "More recently, the group’s supporters have sustained this momentum on social media by encouraging attacks in the U.S. and against U.S. interests in retaliation for our airstrikes. ISIL has used this propaganda campaign to draw foreign fighters to the group, including many from Western countries."

The group has already proven that it can carry out terror attacks in Western countries.

"ISIL has the potential to use its safe haven to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the U.S.," Olsen warned. "This threat became real this past year with the shooting in the Brussels museum by an ISIL fighter and with the arrest of an individual in France who was connected to ISIL and possessed several explosive devices."