It has been hard to see news online recently without seeing reports of “coins” being issued by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or as the U.S. government calls the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
At first a rumor, seemingly more credible reports surfaced Nov. 13, with proposed designs even part of the leak. But whether the reports are merely “sound and fury, and signifying nothing,” to steal a line from Shakespeare, is uncertain.
However, the numbers and the logic just don’t add up.
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The reports indicate that copper, silver and gold coins are planned. Naturally, images purported to represent these coins feature imagery that is significant to Islam and the region. This is no surprise, given that coins have served as mediums of communication since ancient times. Whether showing the rose of Rhodes to identify the issuing city, or touting the accomplishments of a Roman emperor for propagandistic purposes, or honoring a fallen statesman like President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a coin linked to his health struggles, coinage has and does represent more than mere media of exchange.
But so far, there does not appear to be any statement from a U.S. government official or agency confirming that a statement attributed to ISIL (which the U.S. government uses rather than ISIS) is authentic. Coin World telephoned the Central Intelligence Agency’s media relations office and the Department of the U.S. Treasury for comment. A Treasury spokesperson released this statement: “Any currency issued by a terrorist organization, including ISIL, would have no value given that the currency would not be recognized in international currency markets.”
Suppose the statement is authentic, and there still are some serious questions about the feasibility of this project.
What would the currency be?
If ISIL wanted a currency, why wouldn’t it delve into the anonymous digital realm and embrace Bitcoins?
At this writing, one bitcoin has an exchange value of $401.75, or about one-thirds of the price of an-ounce of gold at the same point, which was trading at about $1,188 U.S.
But Bitcoin is bound by digital constraints, and it hardly seems ideal for a war-torn region. During times of war, hard money (and to a lesser extent, fractional coins) becomes scarce.
Simply put, a digital currency would lack the currency for a fledgling state.
Would ISIL have access to gold and silver in quantities that would permit a circulating currency?
Reports indicate that these coins would indeed be intended to change hands for day-to-day transactions, a key component in the move to build a caliphate.
According to CNN, citing a CIA estimate, there are as many as 20,000 to 31,500 ISIL fighters. Pinning down a population estimate is a lot trickier. The New York Times provides a map of areas under ISIL control, but there are vast areas inside the region that are uncontested. Roads are the major arteries of the state’s heartbeat.
The exact number of residents under control changes with the movement of fighters, but it is clear that the number of affected people is hundreds of thousands to a few million or more. Circulating coinage for the fighters alone would require tons of metal, never mind whether the jihadists could provide coinage for hundreds of thousands of people. That would be an even greater task, and requires a banking system, which appears to be lacking.
Many world mints like the Royal Canadian Mint and the Royal Mint strike circulation coins from blanks punched from rolls of metal that comes in coils. These coils are created using in-house furnaces and using technical, costly equipment.
The other alternative is buying ready-made blanks. The two biggest players in the market for ready-made blanks are Poongsan-Hwadong and Saxonia Eurocoin GmbH. The Korean-based company has customers across the globe, including the U.S. Mint, which contracts with the PMX Industries subsidiary for coinage blanks. Saxonia is owned by the Mint of Finland and based in Germany.
It seems highly improbable that either company would provide blanks for terrorists to produce coinage, even if ISIL had its own presses upon which to strike coins.
Can they obtain the metal and presses?
But suppose that ISIL could indeed obtain metal for coinage. If ISIL can get weapons, why couldn’t it get gold or silver? And, for that matter, copper?
Various intelligence reports suggest that ISIL earns between $1 million and $2 million daily in oil revenues. Other funding sources include donations from supporters in Qatar and elsewhere, and bribery, according to CNN.
An Oct. 24 report by Joshua Keating at Slate.com notes that, if ISIL were to continue building the infrastructure of a state, that it could soon run out of funds, especially as sanctions tighten the financial pulse of the organization.
The size and weight of the coins haves not been announced, but even with falling silver and gold prices, producing a currency would not come cheap, even if ISIL had the infrastructure capable of producing a coinage on its own.
While the firms that produce presses for the world's mints don’t publicly disclose the cost of their presses, it is a major expense that mints weigh considerably before making.
Once the order is placed, it can take some time to deliver the press.
When the U.S. Mint ordered a new press from Gräbener to begin striking the America the Beautiful 5-ounce coins in 2010, it took several months for the press to arrive across the ocean, never mind whatever time the contract and related groundwork required.
Minting equipment may be hard to come by, but there are instances of emergency issue coins being struck by armies on the run.
Look to Emperor Sulla in ancient Rome, or more recently, the famous German East African elephant coins struck in Tabora.
In both instances, engravers of varied skill created dies and formed gold so coins be struck the old-fashioned way, using a little muscle and sweat. Because they are not machine-produced, they would lack the precision that we have come to expect with coins.