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Abd al-Nasser al-Qardash speaks

June 6, 2020

Abd al-Nasser al-Qardash in Iraqi custody. (source)

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria no longer controls territory, news of the group’s destruction of cultural heritage and trafficking in antiquities has faded from the headlines. The group is still active, and has been waging a rural insurgency in Iraq and Syria for the past year and half. Meanwhile, the loss of the physical caliphate has allowed historians a first chance to pick through its rubble.

Recently, Iraqi terrorism scholar Husham al-Hashimi was able to sit for a four-hour interview with Abd al-Nasser al-Qardash (real name: Taha Abd al-Raheem Abdallah Bakr al-Ghassani), the highest ranking leader of ISIS currently in Iraqi custody. Qardash made several statements about ISIS and antiquities trafficking which require closer examination.

al-Qardash was born in Mosul and grew up in Iraq’s Turkmen community. Inaccurate reports about his background have circulated for some time, including claims that he was a major general in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein and that he served time in the infamous ISIS breeding ground of Camp Bucca in the early 2000s.[1] More recent information reveals he was in fact a civil engineer who was arrested in 2005 and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib.

At some point he joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s branch of al-Qaida in Iraq, which eventually morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As ISIS seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, he became the governor of Wilayat al-Barakah (otherwise known as Hasakah province in northeastern Syria) as well as a senior adviser to al-Baghdadi and a member of the Delegated Committee (who exercised authority on behalf of the caliph while al-Baghdadi was in deep hiding).

In May 2017 he became involved in a major power struggle which began over a debate about when it was appropriate to declare a Muslim to be takfir (an apostate from Islam). The details of this dispute have been explained elsewhere, but suffice to say that Qardash joined the hardline faction in this struggle. Several of his ideological opponents, most notably ISIS theologian Turki al-Bin’ali, met a sudden death by airstrike shortly after speaking out. al-Bin’ali’s supporters later accused his opponents within ISIS of leaking their locations to the international coalition as method of internal house-cleaning.

al-Qardash was dismissed from the Delegated Committee in September of that year. After al-Baghdadi was killed in October 2019, more inaccurate reports claimed al-Qardash was being considered as his successor. In fact, al-Qardash was already in custody, having been captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in ISIS’ last stronghold of Baghouz in March 2019.

Iraqi government photo of al-Qardash in the custody of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service. (source)

The Syrian Kurds handed him over to the Iraqi government in May 2020. Since then he has been singing to whoever will listen, including multiple interviews and TV appearances. Much of what he has had to say for himself as been self-serving and self-exculpatory, such as claiming to have opposed ‘extremists’ within ISIS and to have no responsibility for the massacre of 700 members of the Shaytat tribe in Deir-ez-Zor or the decision to enslave the Yazidi population of Sinjar in 2014. Nevertheless, his experiences from 2017-2019 seem to have left him disillusioned with the organization, saying in his interview with al-Hashimi that “I pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and I am not obligated to pledge allegiance to [his successor] Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi.”

With all appropriate caution, therefore, let us examine al-Qardash’s statements about antiquities trafficking and funding:

“We did not need to grow hashish, cocaine, or Indian hemp. We had an obscene abundance of antiquities. We tried to transfer the relics to Europe to sell them, but we failed in four major attempts. This is especially true for Syrian relics, which are well known and documented as a world heritage. So we resorted to destroying them and punishing those who trade in them.”

Drug trafficking has been a major source of revenue for terrorist organizations around the world for decades, but there has been little to no evidence that ISIS trafficked in narcotics as a major source of revenue. ISIS’ attempts to traffic in antiquities have been well documented in Deir-ez-Zor. However, despite frequent claims, proof that ISIS-smuggled antiquities have shown up in European or American auction houses has remained elusive. al-Qardash’s comments here may be illustrative as to why: artifacts from sites with distinctive material cultures like Palmyra or Mari are easily recognizable and their origins cannot be easily disguised.

The news that ISIS made ‘four major attempts’ to smuggle antiquities into Europe, each one failing, is intriguing, as it has generally been assumed that antiquities trade was carried out through middlemen in Turkey and Lebanon who bought Syrian antiquities for resale later. Did ISIS attempt to cut out the middlemen and sell directly to European dealers, thereby taking a greater percentage of the end price for themselves? This is not clear, but the possibility should be considered.

In any case, al-Qardash says these attempts were unsuccessful. More likely self-serving is his claim that ISIS punished artifact traffickers. While ISIS did publicly destroy artifacts seized from traffickers on several occasions, including several Palmyra funerary busts and a Neo-Assyrian stele from Tell Ajaja, these were destroyed because the traffickers were operated without permission from ISIS in order to avoid giving ISIS a cut of the proceeds. Further documentation has made it clear that ISIS banned excavation without a permit from the organization, which ensured that ISIS took a large share of any of the profits.

Regardless, al-Qardash provides a great deal of other information about ISIS’ internal funding which makes it clear that antiquities were not a major source of revenue for the organization. While claiming that Sami al-Jubouri,[2] who replaced Abu Sayyaf al-Tunisi as head of the Diwan al-Rikaz after the latter was killed in a US raid in May 2015, liked to keep the group’s finances secret, from what he know the main sources of funding in eastern Syria were:

  • Oil smuggling, which he says netted the group $400 million. ISIS sold oil indiscriminately, even to the group’s enemies. According to al-Qardash oil smuggling was al-Jubouri’s primary concern rather than antiquities trafficking.
  • Smuggling weapons and goods. It is not clear who ISIS may have been selling weapons to, rather than buying them.
  • Ransom money from kidnappings. He specifically names local officials, journalists, and humanitarian workers as prime targets for securing a lucrative ransom. Reports of ransom money paid for hostages have usually been kept quiet, but the few reports which exist have discussed millions of dollars in ransoms.
  • Selling bodies. Even more disturbingly, al-Qardash says the group made money from selling the bodies of persons killed in battle or executed by the group back to their families for burial.
  • Looting. The seizure of property from opponents of the Islamic State has been well-documented elsewhere.
  • Taxation. Like any government, ISIS attempted to extract revenue through taxes of various types, which al-Qardash says were levied on farmers and merchants.

Overall, al-Qardash says his budget as wali of Wilayah al-Barakah was $200 million in 2015, which funded all military forces in the province. This figure is roughly double the revenue reported from Wilayah al-Kheir (Deir-ez-Zor) at around the same time in an earlier post on this site. It is possible that Wilayah al-Barakah, on the frontlines of the battle against the Syrian Kurds, received a much higher budget than other provinces.

While al-Qardash’s interview is another piece of evidence that antiquities trafficking never made up a significant portion of ISIS’ revenue, it does reveal something about the Islamic State’s economy and why it proved unsustainable. Aside from oil, an inordinate amount of the Islamic State’s economy centered on taking assets away from its opponents and redistributing them to supporters of the Islamic State. According to al-Qardash:

Money is the biggest factor in encouraging young people to volunteer in the Iraqi-Syrian border areas. The poor social and economic conditions are a result of the tyranny of the ruling regimes, the absence of social justice, in addition to the involvement of most of the government leaders in corrupt practices, and their tendency to exclude shariah and Islamic culture from life, along with importing Western systems and values, without regard for cultural and societal sensitivities

ISIS had money, and used it to buy loyalty from many of the people who lived under their rule. The alternative was having your property confiscated and used to buy the loyalty of other people. But without an economy capable of creating new wealth there is a certain half-life as to how long this system can operate before it sputters to a halt.


[1] Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 137-138.

[2] al-Jubouri is still at large, and is the subject of a $5 million reward from the US government for information leading to his death or capture.

Article © Christopher W. Jones 2020.

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