Follow the money: How to bring IS extremists to justice

Who profited from the rise of the extremist group known as the “Islamic State” (IS) in Iraq and where are they today? This is just one of the questions that former German federal prosecutor Christian Ritscher hopes to answer over the course of the next year.

In September, Ritscher was appointed to head UNIT, the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh (the Arabic name for IS group).

At its peak, IS had thousands of members, including an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters, and controlled around 100,000 square kilometers of territory in Iraq and Syria. As it made up its own ultra-conservative and violent version of Islam, the extremist group committed multiple crimes against everyone from local minorities, like Iraq’s Yazidis and Christians, to Muslims in areas it controlled. Its attack on the ethno-religious Yazidi community has been classified as genocide by the UN.

Kidnapping, sexual and physical assault, enslavement, extortion, murder and financial crime were everyday occurrences in the so-called caliphate from 2014 onwards.

Previously, Christian Ritscher led Germany’s War Crimes Unit S4 at the Office of the Federal Public Prosecutor.

Building an archive

Although around 10,000 fighters are thought to still be active with the Islamic State, or IS, group today, the extremists were more or less pushed out of their strongholds in 2017. Many fighters were killed or imprisoned and the question now is how to prosecute those who have been caught.

UNIT first started work in August 2018 and is tasked with documenting crimes committed by the brutal extremist group as well as archiving evidence and helping train Iraqi authorities in topics like forensics.

Over the past six months, around 2 million pieces of evidence were archived and digitized by UNIT. In May 2021, the organization, which employs over 200 people, reported that 14 different nations had asked for help with cases related to the IS group outside of Iraq.

Ritscher previously ran Germany’s own war crimes investigations unit, which has been responsible for bringing several high profile cases to German courts. He led the team investigating one such case in Frankfurt, where an IS group member was recently convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide after he and his German wife left a five-year-old Yazidi girl chained up in unbearable heat, while they were with IS in Iraq. The girl died of thirst.

UNIT provided assistance for that case too, Ritscher told members of the UN Security Council in early December.

A Munich court said German IS convert, Jennifer W., committed a crime against humanity when she abandoned a child in extreme heat.

Not just an ‘internal Iraqi problem’

The new head of UNIT believes that looking more closely into the IS group’s financing will be one of the “most promising” areas of UNIT’s research in the near future. UNIT has a dedicated team working on this.

Ritscher couldn’t give DW any further details as investigations are ongoing. But, he added, “I would guess we are going to find international connections to this. This is not just an internal Iraqi problem. After all, the IS group was also acting outside Iraq, for example, in Europe.”

Foreign donors from Gulf countries were originally suspected of funding the nascent IS group. But when the extremists came to control large parts of Iraq and Syria, most of their money came from inside the territory and people they ruled over. At the peak of its power in 2014, experts estimate the group had assets of over $2 billion.

To find those still missing, Iraq uses forensics to compare material from mass graves to genetic samples from living relatives

“The funds seized from occupied territories combined with natural resources sales, taxation of local communities and criminal activities … [made] IS the richest terrorist organization in the world,” the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in the US concluded.

Who profits?

In late 2020, the US government estimated that the extremist group might still have around $300 million worth of assets. But these days, any income being generated comes from criminal activities, researchers at the US Treasury said, including everything from kidnapping and extortion, smuggling drugs in the region and human trafficking into Europe as well as the illegal sales of looted Iraqi or Syrian antiquities.

The IS group have apparently also dabbled in cryptocurrencies to evade authorities and to move or launder money.

They also use an informal system of money transfers, which operates a bit like an unofficial Western Union in the Middle East where personal contacts send cash overseas. The US has sanctioned several individuals suspected of helping transfer money and in October this year, Iraqi authorities said they had arrested a senior IS member, Sami Jasim al-Jaburi, who apparently oversaw the extremist group’s finances.

“Investigating terror financing is important because, first of all, it gives you a top-down view,” Ritscher told DW. “If you follow the money, you see what the organization’s structure is and in the end, you find the people who are really going to profit from what was done.”

Iraq says it captured Sami Jasim al-Jaburi abroad; sources say the arrest happened in Turkey

Many challenges

UNIT also has special teams investigating crimes against women, the recruitment of child soldiers and how the IS group deliberately set out to develop chemical weapons in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. These will also be focal points for UNIT next year, Ritscher told DW.

Of course, there are also challenges. Foreign nationals who belonged to the IS group will likely be prosecuted in their homelands, but Ritscher thinks that the best place to prosecute Iraqi nationals is in Iraq.

This in itself presents legal challenges for UNIT and the Iraqi courts. As the UN Security Council reports, UN “best practices” mean that “no evidence may be shared for criminal proceedings in which capital punishment could be imposed.” In many of the IS-related cases going before Iraqi courts, the death penalty is a possibility. The Iraqi justice system has regularly been criticized for the way it treats suspected IS members.

Around 58,000 people live in Al Hol camp in Syria, many of them relatives of IS members

The Iraqi government has proposed draft legislation that could change how it can work with UNIT but it has been held up because of Iraq’s political gridlock after recent elections. The next government has yet to be formed.

“We act with respect to Iraq’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ritscher said. “So we are quite sensitive in a way and we are prepared to overcome potential hurdles creatively, if and when they arise. It is important that UNIT’s work is reflected in domestic proceedings in Iraq, and we are confident that this can be achieved,” he added.

Patience needed

As UNIT’s evidence mounts up, Ritscher believes there will soon be a “turning point” in how IS group members are potentially brought to justice.

This is something that is likely to take years though, he conceded. “I can understand why the victims of these crimes are impatient. They want to see justice done,” Ritscher said, noting that he hoped UNIT would act as a central database that others could come to for help, when prosecuting an IS group member.

“But investigating and bringing to court international crimes, like crimes against humanity is always a long process. Look at Cambodia and Rwanda. But it does happen, as we recently saw with the Frankfurt case,” he concluded optimistically. “And, as we continue to work on this, there will be more trials like that.”

Edited by: Nicole Goebel