By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
The news exists–or should exist–to produce an informed populace, under the assumption that a populace needs to be informed in order to make beneficial decisions for society and state. But sometimes what comes across the wire is so horrific, so brutal, so tasteless–so against the grain of what we call by the grace of God “ordinary” experience–that one takes pause, not knowing what to say about it or indeed if one should say anything at all.
Typically, such events don’t affect the realm of coins. When news with a numismatic element catches the eyes of the national media, it usually concerns the discovery of some great hoard, the pandemonium created by the hotly-anticipated release of some new issue, or the record price an ultra-rarity brought at auction.
These kind of stories, while interesting to us in the hobby, are usually a sign of a slow news day.
But a recent story involving coins has captured the attention of dozens if not hundreds of western news outlets, most of which have, so far, shown little understanding of the subject.
It involves a series of messages on Twitter from supporters affiliated with the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Tweets were issued claiming that the group plans to produce and circulate gold and silver coins in the territories it currently holds. These reports were then followed by a statement on an ISIS-related website claiming to be from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which calls for the striking of these coins in order to “change the tyrannical monetary system of the West” that he claims is responsible for the enslavement of muslims.
The mainstream media has taken these statements at face value and repeated them verbatim. Fox News shows illustrations of the alleged coin designs and offers descriptions of the coins’ symbols, motifs, and inscriptions. The London-based newspaper The Daily Mail published an illustration that features different potential ISIS coin designs and reports that the coins will debut within weeks, circulating in ISIS-controlled territories.
The Wall Street Journal even asked one of CoinWeek’s contributing writers for his opinion. The writer told the Wall Street Journal that the announcement was “brilliant from a propaganda standpoint”.
It reminded us of when the ever-frivolous Matt Lauer requested and received Tom Clancy’s unvarnished opinions on the events of September 11, 2001 as they were happening.
Yet not everyone is as vapid as the hosts of the Today show. In what may be the best major burn we’ve read on the topic, New York Magazine contributing writer Katie Zadavski jokingly calls ISIS “progressive” for the move and advises readers to start looking for the coin, in order to get their “numismatist grandpa” one in time for Christmas.
Anyway, these are but a few examples – a quick google search will reveal many more, especially from the “hipper”, “edgier” websites that covered it first. The tone of the pieces run the gamut from straight news to jingoistic mockery to the macabre. All because of a handful of terrorist tweets.
The whole discussion is a bit daft when you consider that ISIS, despite its aspirations and proclamations, is not now and will likely never be a state and endures daily bombing campaigns and armed pushback from all directions.
To further illustrate how much of a non-story it is, we present five reasons why ISIS is not manufacturing its own gold and silver coinage, never mind whether such a move would topple the economic superpowers of the West or not.
1) ISIS lacks the means of production
When the shooting portion of the American Civil War started, the Confederate States of America seized control of three U.S. branch mints: Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans. In the span of four years, the C.S.A. turned out a small number of 1861 half dollars, a couple thousand gold pieces, and little else.
Before long, the New Orleans Mint was retaken by federal troops and production ceased at the other two mints, never to start again.
Technological advances aside, the Confederacy was in a better position to mint coins in 1861 than ISIS is now: they had infrastructure, skilled machinists, and reliable sources of raw materials.
ISIS’s infrastructure consists of ad hoc military strongholds with supply lines kept open by pickup trucks packed with militants. We assume that ISIS has no industrial-scale coin production capacity, no stockpiles of assayed ingots, and probably hasn’t started sinking and cutting dies.
That the coins are imminent seems quite a stretch when you consider how long it takes a mint in the developed world to go from concept to production.
But should ISIS figure out a quick and dirty way to strike coins, they still have another problem on their hands.
2) Coin-minting infrastructure is an obvious target
An ISIS mint would be a valuable strategic target for coalition air power. It would be difficult for ISIS to not only move truckloads of bullion around undetected, but also operate anything more than a (pun intended) token coining operation–one capable of serving an economy and not just propaganda or counterintelligence purposes–out of the reach of satellites, drones, and allied bombs.
And if they decided to make minting and distributing coins a priority anyway, the protection of said operations would require the substantial shifting of arms, personnel and other warfighting capabilities over to a defensive posture. Such an assumed change in strategy seems at odds with the reason for minting coins in the first place.
3) ISIS isn’t rich, despite what the media suggests
ISIS is a genocidal revolutionary gang, not a country.
That doesn’t preclude the ability to strike coins (you have to pay your mercenaries somehow), but it does have a major impact on ISIS’s ability to properly fund an economy based on gold and silver.
To be blunt, ISIS isn’t rich.
Let’s put the numbers in perspective. ISIS has a reputed war chest of around 2 billion dollars and is said to take in revenues of about two million dollars per day through smuggling oil and other commodities, taxing the people who live in its new turf, and through theft, brute force, intimidation and murder.
To a regular person on the street, this might seem like a significant amount of money. But for a government, it’s not.
The United States has reportedly spent between $7.5 and $8.3 million a day on its bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq. The initial cost of a single coalition F-22 Raptor is $377 million, not taking into account fuel, munitions and upkeep. It would literally take ISIS the better part of a year to raise enough revenue to operate just one of the modern warplanes flying over the war-torn Levant.
From this perspective, our own military spending stands a better chance of breaking the U.S. economy than fantasy dirhams and dinars.
4) The coins would likely be melted… immediately
Militants carrying ISIS propaganda in the form of silver and gold coins is one thing. But circulating coins that have no backing apart from their metal content while the issuing authority is under constant attack from the governments of the world is another.
ISIS coins, if struck, could serve as necessity money, especially if “necessitated” at gunpoint, but in all likelihood many in the general population will not want to be seen as ISIS sympathizers, collaborators, or members once ISIS is defeated.
And ISIS coins might very well be confiscated by hostile governments and treated like stolen property, not currency.
In the hands of the Iraqi or Syrian government, ISIS dinars and dirhams would be melted. So why would merchants and citizens in ISIS-held territories shoulder that risk.
However, even these four points beg the question.
5) The “story” is little more than ISIS trolling the West through social media
During the heat of an electoral campaign, talk among senior campaign staff is centered on controlling the narrative and owning the news cycle. The more time the media spends putting your candidate’s message out, the more your opponent has to spend to counter it. The most effective campaigns use the media to communicate their message to the general public.
What ISIS has done by posting a few tweets about their desire to strike gold and silver coins is a good example of such media manipulation. Let’s be clear, there can be no vetting of this story. ISIS is not a country. It has no embassies or consulates, no treasury department, no sources of bullion nor production facilities. They have sent no one forward to officially announce the claim, and have fielded no reporter’s questions.
Yet it’s somehow “newsworthy”, spreading across the airwaves as fast as any rumor about Ebola.
In the immortal words of the Internet Generation: “U MAD BRO?”
Maybe ISIS will prove us wrong and establish its own mint. Maybe it will source gold and silver ingots by the ton. Maybe it will hire a staff of skilled engravers, die cutters, and press operators and find a way to distribute it all. Maybe some kind of money will actually circulate. Saying it’s impossible isn’t the point.
But if that day comes, then have at it, media. You’ll have a really interesting coin story for a slow news day.
UPDATE: This article was revised on November 17.