As the headlines focus on airstrikes, the trade in smuggled oil, and looted antiquities, it is easy to forget that millions of people live in the territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIL), people who rely on ISIL for their welfare and basic needs. Exposing the inability of ISIL to meet these expectations as they establish their proto-state is the surest way of undermining the legitimacy the group seeks. This challenge is starkly demonstrated by the increasing inability of ISIL to provide the most basic of human requirements, food.
Despite the year-long bombing campaign and a series of tactical setbacks, the appeal of ISIL remains strong, drawing individuals and even entire families to Syria and Iraq to live under its self-declared Caliphate. The international community's efforts to restrict the finances and resources of ISIL appear to have made little material headway. According to the blunt assessment of Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the US Treasury Department, 'ISIL has plenty of money'. The journey to squeeze the group's finances remains long and will require not only military intervention and sanctions but also patience and luck on the part of the international community as well missteps by ISIL itself.
As ISIL expanded across Syria and Iraq in 2014 it took control not only of territory but also population, people to whom it made significant welfare commitments. The inaugural issue of the group's English language Dabiq magazine promised to 'pump millions of dollars into services that are important to Muslims' and ensure 'the availability of food and products and commodities in the market, particularly bread', all of which is intended to create a 'flourishing relationship between the Islamic State and its citizens'. For ISIL, control of wheat offered an important strategic opportunity, rewarding those who complied with its occupation with cut-price supplies and depriving opponents, in particular Christians and Yazidis, of a staple commodity of life.
12 months ago it appeared that maintaining food supplies would be a major challenge for ISIL, possibly leading to the undermining of its messages of victory and superiority. As the group expanded its territory across Iraq, farmers fled their land fearing for their security despite the guarantees of safety offered by ISIL, leaving the group to control and steward a significant portion of Iraq's agriculture resources in addition to those it already controlled in Syria. The Iraqi governorates most affected by the conflict with ISIL should produce a third of the country's wheat and barley but, according to a June 2014 report from FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Iraq was facing considerable food security concerns in light of the conflict.
Thus ISIL's ability to manage the harvesting, processing, and distribution of food to the people under its control seemed likely to add to the challenges it faced as the international community sought to degrade and destroy the group. Seed held back by farmers from the prior year's crop was appropriated, fertilizer previously centrally distributed by the government was lacking, landmines had been scattered in fields, and timely planting seemed unlikely. In Kirkuk province little more than 50% of arable land was planted for the new growing season. Across the border in Syria, wheat production in ISIL-controlled territory has declined 70% since the start of the civil war - the outlook for the 2015 harvest in Iraq looked dire.
Yet despite this apparently bleak outlook it seems that at least this year ISIL has avoided the food shortages that might have undermined its ability to provide for its 'citizens'. According to FAO weather across Syria and Iraq during the 2015 season have been highly favourable. Remotely-sensed data and images indicate relatively good vegetation conditions in winter crop-growing areas. Further late-season rains in May ensured grain 'filled' well before sun and hot temperatures in June supported ripening and drying of crops.
Whilst the short-term prognosis is less ominous than might have been expected, security conditions are inevitably causing a deterioration in agricultural output. This year's harvest may have avoided disaster but damage to agricultural machinery, storage facilities and irrigation systems will certainly lead to a rapid decline in productivity - witness the effect of years of conflict on the harvest across Syria which was approximately 40% lower than its pre-conflict level this year, despite the favourable weather conditions. Furthermore, farmers are facing heavy zakat taxes on production as well as sharply rising input costs, a lack of quality seeds and fertiliser, and a markedly reduced sale price imposed by ISIL whilst consumers are paying prices up to 58% higher than elsewhere in Iraq.
The struggle to counter ISIL is seen too often through the international lens of airstrikes to disrupt fighters and financing and nascent government efforts to debunk the group's perverted propaganda, but it will be the group's failure to provide for its population that ultimately leads to its decline. No family, however passionately it believes in the ISIL message, will want to take their children to a place where they starve and the 'state' is unable to provide the basic needs of life.