Though the American media often portrays ISIS as an unstoppable, terrifying juggernaut, the truth is that the group is in real trouble, and is actually losing ground in its core Iraqi and Syrian holdings. A new leaked internal document suggests the pressure may be even worse than we thought. According to the document, ISIS is being forced to slash salaries for its fighters by half across its holdings.
The document was first reported by researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi on his personal site, as part of a broader cache of documents he acquired. Here's the core passage from the document:
On account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing, it has been decided to reduce the salaries that are paid to all mujahideen by half, and it is not allowed for anyone to be exempted from this decision, whatever his position.
"Exceptional circumstances" are forcing ISIS to cut salaries to its fighters and commanders by fully half. If that's not a sign of trouble, I don't know what is.
The document appears to be authentic. "[I] definitely think this is real," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group watching the conflict, has heard from its own sources that ISIS is slashing salaries.
Some caution about whether the document's orders will be implemented, however, is warranted. It's possible the document's recommendations are provisional or won't be accepted by all. "If, for example, Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil said they were cutting salaries in half across the board (or, say, 20 percent), we'd be skeptical," Gartenstein-Ross said. "I think it's plausible, understood with an asterisk."
And the fact that it's plausible at all — that ISIS may have to cut payments to the fighters and commanders it depends on to hold its caliphate — speaks to just how much trouble the group is in.
Most of ISIS's money comes from extortion: essentially taking money from its citizens at gunpoint. But there's only so much wealth for the group to steal in the territory it controls without economic growth, and ISIS has no plan for putting together a real economy. Its oil infrastructure, which used to be quite valuable, has been heavily bombed by the US-led coalition.
"Their cash had already been drying up," Gartenstein-Ross explains. "The coalition bombing their trucks bringing oil to market further depletes their revenue by adding a premium to doing business with ISIS. Plus, taxing a population that has very little source of income isn't a sustainable revenue model."
So in short: ISIS has lost 25 percent of its territory since mid-2014. Its cash resources are running low. It has no friends in the region and lots of powerful enemies.
ISIS is in very deep trouble.