RAQQA, Syria — It’s widely recognized that Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group often called IS, ISIS or ISIL in the West) depends on oil sales to fuel its armies. Until recently, it’s been less clear who is buying Daesh’s oil, and how it ends up in their hands.However, recent reports suggest that the oil flows to Europe and Asia through a complex process that implicates allies of the United States like Turkey and Israel. The U.S. is also facing increasing criticism for its failure to target the terrorist group’s oil infrastructure in a serious way until recently.
Cam Simpson and Matthew Philips, writing in November for Bloomberg Businessweek, called recent U.S. attacks on oil trucks an attempt by the Obama administration to “quietly” fix a “colossal miscalculation.” Government experts now argue that the U.S. dramatically underestimated Daesh’s oil profits:
“The Obama administration ‘misunderstood the [oil] problem at first, and then they wildly overestimated the impact of what they did,’ says Benjamin Bahney, an international policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a U.S. Department of Defense-funded think tank, where he helped lead a 2010 study on [Daesh’s] finances and back-office operations based on captured ledgers.”
U.S. intelligence officials now believe Daesh is making at least $500 million from oil sales each year, $400 million more than previous official estimates. “You have to go after the oil, and you have to do it in a serious way, and we’ve just begun to do that now,” Bahney told Bloomberg.
Officials also cited potential civilian casualties to explain their reluctance to go after truckers transporting oil from Daesh-controlled territories. That reluctance apparently ended on Nov. 16, when the U.S. destroyed 116 oil trucks after airplanes “first dropped leaflets warning drivers to scatter.”
Reluctance to harm civilians hasn’t prevented the U.S. from creating high civilian death tolls on other fronts of the “global war on terror.” In August, Airwars, a coalition of independent journalists, estimated that at least 459 civilians had been killed in U.S. airstrikes on Daesh, and those numbers are continuing to rise, with the group’s most conservative estimate of civilian casualties now standing at least 682. Additionally, U.S. drone strikes have proven especially ineffective, hitting more civilians than members of al-Qaida, according to a September report from the United Nations.
Recent developments suggest that U.S. allies directly benefit from the flow of cheap terrorist oil and, given the United States’ role in the creation of Daesh, this could suggest that the reluctance to target Daesh’s oil profits prior to the Paris attacks may be motivated by self-interest.
How ISIS Oil Reaches Israel
On Nov. 26, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a London-based media outlet focusing on the Arabic world, published a detailed investigation tracing Daesh’s oil from the massive oilfields in Iraq and Syria to refineries in Israel, where it’s ultimately exported to Europe.
The enormous scale of Daesh’s oil production infrastructure in the Middle East is further evidence of the importance of energy exports to the group. The oil is first extracted from captured oil fields:
“IS oil production in Syria is focused on the Conoco and al-Taim oil fields, west and northwest of Deir Ezzor, while in Iraq the group uses al-Najma and al-Qayara fields near Mosul. A number of smaller fields in both Iraq and Syria are used by the group for local energy needs.
According to estimates based on the number of oil tankers that leave Iraq, in addition to al-Araby’s sources in the Turkish town of Sirnak on the border with Iraq, through which smuggled oil transits, IS is producing an average of 30,000 barrels a day from the Iraqi and Syrian oil fields it controls.”
Unfortunately, like many reports on the topic, many of Al-Araby’s sources remain anonymous for their own safety. A member of the Iraqi intelligence services informed the reporters about the complex path the oil takes, traveling in dozens of tankers at a time into Zahko, a city controlled by Iraqi Kurds near the border with Turkey:
“After [Daesh] oil lorries arrive in Zakho – normally 70 to 100 of them at a time – they are met by oil smuggling mafias, a mix of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, in addition to some Turks and Iranians,” the colonel continued.”
The gangs compete in sometimes deadly bidding wars to purchase and smuggle the oil onto the next stage, and “[t]he highest bidder pays between 10 and 25 percent of the oil’s value in cash — US dollars — and the remainder is paid later, according to the colonel.”
These “oil mafias” then bring the product to rudimentary refineries for simple processing from crude into oil, “because Turkish authorities do not allow crude oil to cross the border if it is not licensed by the Iraqi government,” the colonel explained.
Kurdish Smugglers and Turkish elite transport Daesh’s oil
Al-Araby’s sources reported that from Turkey the oil flows through three ports — Mersin, Dortyol and Ceyhan — into Israel. And from Israel, the oil seeps into Europe:
“According to a European official at an international oil company who met with al-Araby in a Gulf capital, Israel refines the oil only ‘once or twice’ because it does not have advanced refineries. It exports the oil to Mediterranean countries – where the oil “gains a semi-legitimate status” – for $30 to $35 a barrel.”
Reports also suggests that Daesh’s oil is not just passing through Turkish soil on its way to Israel, but also being aided in its journey by the country’s elite. A July investigation by AWD News accused Bilal Erdogan, son of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of owning one of the maritime companies responsible for shipping this contraband oil:
“Bilal Erdogan who owns several maritime companies, had allegedly signed contracts with European operating companies to carry Iraqi stolen oil to different Asian countries. Turkish government unwittingly supports ISIS by buying Iraqi plundered oil which is being produced from the Iraqi sized oil wells. Bilal Erdogan’s maritime companies own special wharfs in Beirut and Ceyhan ports transporting [Daesh]’s smuggled crude oil in Japan-bound oil tankers.”
However, an anonymous writer on ZeroHedge, an economic news website, noted on Nov. 30 that while Bilal Erdogan does seem to be moving Kurdish oil in his tankers, “we’ve yet to come across conclusive evidence of Bilal’s connection to [Daesh].”
In a Nov. 19 investigation, international security scholar and journalist Nafeez Ahmed, documented the mounting evidence of direct ties between Turkey and Daesh, noting that a Turkish daily reported that Daesh fighters had 100,000 fake Turkish passports, a number the U.S. Army’s Foreign Studies Military Office reported was likely exaggerated even as it corroborated reports of the flow of fake passports. Digging further, Ahmed cites a number of other credible reports, from a November Newsweek report that Daesh “sees Turkey as an ally,” to accusations of oil sales in Turkey from June 2014 by a member of Turkey’s opposition party, and leaked Turkish-language documents that show Saudi royalty shipped weapons to Daesh through Turkey.
An August report from Financial Times supports Al-Araby’s assertion that massive quantities of oil flow through the hands of Kurdish sellers into Israel. According to David Sheppard, John Reed and Anjli Raval, “Israel turns to Kurds for three-quarters of its oil supplies. They allege that Israel purchased about $1 billion in oil from the sellers between May and August of 2015.
In his analysis of the flow of oil, Shadowproof’s Dan Wright noted that Daesh seems “embarrassed” by the reports of oil sales to Israel. Al-Araby reported that “someone close to [Daesh]” reported via Skype:
‘To be fair, the organisation sells oil from caliphate territories but does not aim to sell it to Israel or any other country,’ he said. ‘It produces and sells it via mediators, then companies, who decide whom to sell it to.'”
Even without the potential ties to Daesh, Kurdish oil trading has proven controversial. The Iraqi government is struggling to put an end to the trade that they claim circumvents deals that were made to limit sales, while Kurdish officials claim the sales are necessary to maintain their financial independence. Iraq’s leaders are also threatening lawsuits against maritime shipping companies that accept Kurdish oil.
Russia weighs in on Erdogan oil smuggling
When Turkey shot down a Russian jet on Nov. 24, Russia responded by claiming the jet had been involved in an anti-terror mission targeting Daesh’s oil transportation infrastructure near the Turkey-Syria border:
“According to a press release from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, [Sergei] Lavrov pointed out that, ‘by shooting down a Russian plane on a counter-terrorist mission of the Russian Aerospace Force in Syria, and one that did not violate Turkey’s airspace, the Turkish government has in effect sided with [Daesh].”
… The Russian Minister reminded his counterpart about Turkey’s involvement in the [Daesh’s] illegal trade in oil, which is transported via the area where the Russian plane was shot down, and about the terrorist infrastructure, arms and munitions depots and control centers that are also located there,”
Further complicating the tense international incident, WikiLeaks noted that a pseudonymous whistleblower on Twitter known as Fuat Avni claimed in October that Turkish President Erdogan was considering shooting down a Russian jet plane in order to leverage the resulting international tensions to boost his popularity both before and after recent elections.
RT reported that on Dec. 2, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov offered what he claimed was “proof concerning the illegal oil trade by [Daesh] and Ankara’s ties to it”:
“‘According to our data, the political leadership of the country [Turkey], including President Erdogan and his family, is involved in this criminal business,’ Antonov told the journalists in Moscow.”