The Islamic State, the world's richest terror group, is reaping millions of dollars a day from selling stolen oil to shady businessmen across the Middle East.
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
The homicidal maniacs of the Islamic State, like many shady and not-so-shady groups before it, are apparently getting into the oil business. And it seems to suit them as they reportedly are making millions of dollars per day off of it.
The militants who have conquered broad swaths of Iraq and Syria are turning to good old-fashioned crime — oil smuggling, in this case — to underwrite its main line of work. The money it can earn from illicit oil sales further bolsters the group’s status as one of the richest self-funded terrorist outfits in the world, dependent not on foreign governments for financial support but on the money its reaped from kidnappings and bank robberies. The group has also managed to steal expensive weaponry that the United States had left for the Iraqi military, freeing it from the need to spend its own money to buy such armaments.
But even the millions of dollars a day that the Islamic State seems to be raking in by trucking stolen oil across porous borders is not enough to meet the hefty obligations created by the group’s own headlong expansion. Taking over big chunks of territory, as in eastern Syria and in northern Iraq, could also leave it forced to take on the sorts of expensive obligations — such as paying salaries, collecting the trash, and keeping the lights on — usually reserved for governments.
"They’ve gone from being the world’s richest terrorist organization to the world’s poorest state," said Michael Knights, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
As with much of what the Islamic State purportedly does, the group’s actual role in trading illicit Syrian and Iraqi oil is hard to pin down. The Islamic State seemingly controls the majority of Syria’s oil fields, especially in the country’s east; human rights observers say 60 percent of Syrian oil fields are in the hands of militants or tribes. The Islamic State also seems to have control of several small oil fields in Iraq as well, though reports differ on whether most of those wells are capped or whether the Islamists are producing and shipping serious volumes of stolen Iraqi oil across the border.
In all, energy experts estimate that illicit production in Iraq and Syria — largely by the Islamic State — is north of 80,000 barrels a day. That’s a tiny amount compared with stable oil-producing countries’ output, but it is a lot of potentially valuable oil in the hands of a group that even al Qaeda considers beyond the pale.
If that oil fetched global market prices, it would be worth a small fortune: $8 million a day. But as the Sunni militant group’s new neighbors in Iraqi Kurdistan have discovered, it’s not easy to get top dollar for what many consider black-market oil. The Islamic State allegedly sells much of its production to middlemen in Syria, who then bring it to refineries in Turkey, Iran, or Kurdistan.
That oil is essentially fenced and likely fetches only about $10 to $22 a barrel, said Valérie Marcel, an oil expert at Chatham House in London. Crude trades just above $100 a barrel in New York and London.
In Iraq, the Islamic State apparently cut out middlemen and uses its own fleet of tankers, which means it can reap between $50 and $60 a barrel, Marcel said. Other reports put the terrorist group’s Iraqi oil proceeds as low as $25 a barrel.
"They’re taking a massive discount, and they’re only achieving a small fraction of the value" of the oil, the Washington Institute’s Knights said. Altogether, the group’s oil smuggling could be generating on the order of $1 million to $2 million a day. Other analysts say the Islamic State’s oil income could be as much as $3 million a day.
The United Nations is taking notice. On Monday, July 28, it warned countries against buying oil from militants in Iraq or Syria, saying that such purchases would violate U.N. sanctions on the terrorist group.
With the Islamic State at the helm, that oil boom certainly won’t last forever. The old oil fields in Syria and Iraq need lots of care, such as injections to keep the pressure up and output reliable; the lack of trained technicians and the frequent turnover have been a nightmare for proper reservoir management and will ultimately lower future output at those fields, Marcel said.
Still, all else being equal, that kind of control over oil fields, oil revenues, and petroleum products would be a financial shot in the arm for any terrorist outfit. Control of oil products, from gas canisters needed for cooking to fuel needed for transport, gives the group additional local leverage. And the revenue bolsters the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and pay fighters and to buy weapons.
However, that money is also desperately needed to cover the salaries of public workers in places the militants now occupy. Providing basic public services to show that they can do more than conquer and crucify, but can govern to a limited extent, also costs money. Serving as an unelected proxy for ousted or absent governments has long been a way for Islamist groups, from Hezbollah to Hamas, to broaden popular support.
"They need to keep their war machine going, but they also need to govern, and that’s costing them money," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He estimates that most of the oil revenue is quickly spent pacifying restless tribal leaders, bribing coalition partners, and paying to keep functional the basic sinews of daily life.
"If they don’t make happen the things that people are used to see happening, their rule is going to look really, really bad," he said.
Here’s the thing about the Islamic State’s newfound oil wealth: Big money is not unique among terrorist groups, and in this case, it’s probably not enough.
Oil money is just one slice of an illicit pie funding the group. In Syria and Iraq, protection rackets, extortion, local taxes, and other forms of smuggling all pour millions of dollars into the Islamic State’s coffers. Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, told Congress last week that even before the militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, the group was raking in $12 million a month from illicit activities there.
And in the pantheon of terrorist groups, none of which has conquered the world, top-line illicit revenues of a few hundred million dollars a year are not unusual. The U.S. government estimates that more than a score of the groups on its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations are deeply involved in transnational criminal activities.
The Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, raked in between $100 million and $200 million annually from the drug trade and smuggling timber and minerals. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took home dozens of millions of dollars a year from ransom kidnappings; over a decade, the group possibly netted as much as $200 million. Hezbollah took a page from The Sopranos and made a fortune off stolen or counterfeit cigarettes. Al-Shabab fueled its fight with proceeds from human trafficking, while cocaine money kept Colombia’s FARC in the field for decades.
More importantly, the Islamic State’s access to some oil revenues pales in comparison with its obligations and points to the group’s longer-term vulnerabilities.
Part of its illicit empire, such as extortion and shakedowns in towns across northern Iraq, is crumbling after Baghdad froze public salaries for those areas. That’s a double blow to the group: No local incomes to extort, and now the Islamic State has to pay the payroll tab itself. At the same time, the group’s barbarity, lack of outreach to even like-minded Salafi groups, and territorial overreach may have sown the seeds of its own downfall.
"They’re overplaying their hand everywhere they have a hand, and that’s going to come back and hurt them," Gartenstein-Ross said.
Moreover, control of a few small oil fields that translates into heavily discounted smuggling revenues won’t be enough to give the Islamic State staying power.
"They can bring power, fear, and intimidation, and they can even bring unsophisticated social services," Knights said. "What they can’t do is bring the resources of the Iraqi state," a $120 billion national budget underwritten by the nearly 3 million barrels of oil shipped daily out of southern Iraqi oil terminals.
"Without that oil from Basra, then ISIS are just Palestinians," Knights added.