UN investigators focus on ISIS terror camps in hunt for $50m war chest

Experts uncover 'inner workings' of terror group's treasury

A picture shows the Kurdish-run Al Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected ISIS fighters in the northeastern Hasakeh governorate, on December 6, 2021.  Reuters
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UN investigators believe they are close to finding ISIS's $50 million war chest after uncovering leads in the terror group's “inner workings" that point to camps housing its fighters.

Unitad, the UN body investigating atrocities carried out by ISIS, has discovered evidence identifying the “core department” of the ISIS financial system.

The investigation team, led by Germany's former war crimes prosecutor Christian Ritscher, has been examining more than two million pieces of data from mobile phones left in mass graves in Iraq.

It has been working to find evidence to prosecute ISIS for its genocide campaign against the Yazidi people and has found more than 200 mass graves containing about 12,000 victims.

In its latest report, Unitad revealed it has uncovered ISIS's financial trail.

“The team has focused its financial investigations on Bayt Al Mal (House of Money) — the central ISIS treasury and the core department responsible for the collection, storage, management and movement of its wealth,” Mr Ritscher said.

“Through this work, the team has uncovered evidence detailing the internal administrative functioning of Bayt Al Mal and how the actions of this department directly supported the ability of ISIS to carry out war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

“This line of inquiry has further revealed that a network of senior ISIS leadership also acted as trusted financiers, diverting wealth generated through acts of pillage, targeting a range of ethnic and religious minorities across Iraq through theft and obfuscation of property, and aiding and abetting the commission of the crime against humanity of persecution.”

Former British ambassador and leading UN terrorism monitor Edmund Fitton-Brown says the treasury has depleted since the terror's groups peak.

He says although reserves have dropped to about $50m, investigators have noticed money going through the camps.

“An enduring concern are the thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members who remain in detention or in displaced persons camps,” he said.

“Financial flows in and out of these facilities suggest that the risk of terrorism financing remains high.”

Al Hol and Al Roj, the camps run by Syrian-Kurdish forces, presently hold more than 60,000 people, two thirds of them children, who are family members associated with ISIS.

Mr Ritscher says evidence linking some “businesses owners and operators” to ISIS financial flows has been submitted to authorities in Iraq.

Director of the Counter Extremism Project Hans-Jakob Schindler, who worked in the UN Security Council unit that monitors ISIS and Al Qaeda, told The National he believes the terror group's treasury structure still exists despite having diminished.

“During the existence of the ISIS's physical caliphate, there was of course a whole administrative structure dealing with money coming in and being spent by the organisation,” he said.

“This structure had overlapping responsibilities to ensure that money was not stolen from the organisation. Despite this, some ISIS leaders had actually managed to get some money out of the treasury for themselves.

“Therefore, it seems very likely that ISIS maintains some organised central structure that deals with money even now that the physical side of things is no longer existing. As pointed out by the UN Security Council's monitoring team, the organisation continues to have quite substantial assets and therefore it will need some organisational framework to ensure that these assets are protected and managed.”

Mr Schindler said there are still financial flows into the camps containing ISIS fighters and their families from supporters outside the camps that is then handed over to the terror group.

“This is of course not a massive amount of income for ISIS but it is one of the financial streams that it still has,” he said.

“Furthermore, the various affiliates of ISIS outside Iraq and Syria have developed their own income streams to finance their respective operations.”

Mr Ritscher says Unitad has also reached a “potential turning point” in its efforts to deliver justice for the victims of ISIS crimes and it is now possible to envision a new landscape where criminals who previously believed themselves to be out of reach of justice could be held accountable in a court of law.

“If we strengthen our unity in addressing the inherent challenges that the scale of ISIS criminality presents, I believe we have the opportunity to turn the tide from impunity to justice”, he said.

Unitad's work in Iraq has now found evidence linking more than 350 ISIS fighters to war crimes.

The unit has been training Iraqi investigative judges in developing case files for the prosecution of ISIS members for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Updated: December 31, 2021, 9:27 AM