Part 2 of our series “Questions you aren’t supposed to ask about ISIS”. Part 1 is here
Last summer, quoting either David Cohen, the “US Treasury department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence” or a statement from Iraq Energy, a “non-profit policy Institute”, ISIS was suddenly revealed by media storm to be bootlegging crude across the Turkish border, and to be getting shockingly rich as a result. The media reaction was intense and – as ever – unified. Claims were rarely examined, sources rarely verified, amounts were often vague, but by God the message was clear.
ISIS raking in cash: Extremists earn more than $1 million a day…” National Post October 23
…the ISIS–controlled oil market in Iraq…is believed to be raising at least $2 million a day…” CNN August 22
…ISIS Makes Up To $3 Million a Day Selling Oil…”
ABC News August 2
…How ISIS makes up to $6M A DAY…
Newsweek Nov 6
ISIS raises $1 million a day selling crude oil Daily Mail July 12
So incredibly successful were these terrorists at harvesting, packing and exporting crude (not to mention a bit of their own refining) that in no time it seemed they were worth “$2 billion dollars” and climbing fast. The media outrage at all this of course increased pressure on Washington to “do something”. That something being, to no one’s great surprise, more air strikes, this time aimed at the newfangled ISIS oil empire.
It’s timely to remember at this juncture that ISIS was allegedly selling their crude at around $20 – $40 a barrel, one third of the going rate at the time. At this price they would need to be shipping around 100,000 barrels of crude every day to be raking in the most extreme of these astronomical sums. Even the most conservative figure of $1m per day at the highest estimated rate of $40 a barrel would require shipping 20,000+ barrels. This is a very large quantity to be processing. How were/are they doing it?
Detailed explanations are not easy to come by but a broad narrative is offered. On Nov 14 the Guardian told its readers:
[ISIS] were quickly able to make [the captured oil fields] operational and then tapped into established trading networks across northern Iraq, where smuggling has been a fact of life for years. From early July until late October, most of this oil went to Iraqi Kurdistan. The self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate sold oil to Kurdish traders at a major discount. From Kurdistan, the oil was resold to Turkish and Iranian traders.
And what form of transport are they using to move this cargo? Tanker trucks apparently. And not just a few of them. Chatham House tells us:
some queues of tanker trucks have been reported to extend 2 kilometres.”
Well yes, they’d need to. According to Ask.com the carrying capacity of tanker trucks ranges from 50-300 barrels of crude. So, even if we assume they are using the largest capacity trucks available, ISIS would need to be running between 100 and 400 tankers every day to make the kind of sums being claimed. If the trucks are smaller we have to double or even quadruple that number. So, even if we don’t balk at the idea of a beleaguered terrorist network, warring on several fronts, being able to pull off something this sophisticated and manpower-heavy, we’d have to admit traffic jams would be inevitable, especially along those rugged, mountainous “established trading routes.”
What’s even worse and more difficult to understand though is that all our efforts to stop them, via airstrikes, political intervention and border-policing have been almost completely futile. The Guardian told us in the same article quoted above:
Coalition air strikes against tankers and refineries controlled by Isis have merely dented – rather than halted – these exports….
And Patrick Cockburn in the Independent went even further:
The US-led air attacks launched against Islamic State (also known as Isis) on 8 August in Iraq and 23 September in Syria have not worked. President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State has not even begun to achieve success. In both Syria and Iraq, Isis is expanding its control rather than contracting.
This may be connected with the fact the US was bombing the wrong stuff, according to Reuters:
These so-called refineries are not a real target and they do not weaken Islamic State as they do not have any financial value for them.
Oops. A major goof. Or maybe not? According to Global Research the US is using questionable claims of ISIS oil-bootlegging in Syria as an excuse to destroy Syrian infrastructure.
although there have been widespread airstrikes against oil production in Syria, there have however been exactly zero strikes against oil production facilities inside of Iraq; the US is keeping in-tact energy facilities inside of the state that it has control over, whilst destroying the infrastructure of Syrian state which it seeks to degrade and destroy. This two-faced approach is a further attack upon the Syrian government, eliminating any chance they have of recapturing their nation’s oil refineries intact.
Is such duplicity on the part of the World’s Greatest Democracy even possible? Yes, according to Denis Kucinich in the Huffington Post, who calls the current bombing campaign an “attack on Syria, under the guise of striking ISIS.” Regime change in Syria is indeed an acknowledged goal of the US government, and it has been straining at the leash to begin bombing missions over Assad’s oil assets since autumn 2013, when Putin’s intervention “stopped Obama’s drive for military action…in its tracks.”
Being able to do exactly what they planned back then while pretending they are just hunting down unstoppably evil terrorists would be a tempting proposition for the more insane Washington hawks. And of course we must all remember the previous blockbusters of similar genre, like Osama Bin Laden’s Cave of Evil, described so memorably by Donald Rumsfeld…
Maybe the feverish US claims of mile-long multi-million-dollar ISIS smuggling convoys that can barely be “dented” by the most powerful military machine on the planet sound ridiculous because in large part they are ridiculous? Maybe the mainstream media should use their resources to examine these claims rather than simply repeat them?
What, for example, about the “160 computer flash sticks” allegedly “hoovered up” (not literally) by Iraqi forces after a raid on the “head of the ISIS military Council” near Mosul? This “treasure trove” being feverishly analysed by the CIA, we are told…
included names and noms de guerre of all foreign fighters, senior leaders and their code words, initials of sources inside ministries and full accounts of the group’s finances.
These finances were not only – of course – massive, they were also meticulously catalogued on those “flash sticks” allowing the CIA to know every detail of their income and investment portfolio. But let’s hear the Guardian in a longer quote on this:
The strategic acumen of Isis was impressive – so too its attention to detail. “They had itemised everything,” the source said. “Down to the smallest detail.”
Over the past year, foreign intelligence officials had learned that Isis secured massive cashflows from the oilfields of eastern Syria, which it had commandeered in late 2012, and some of which it had sold back to the Syrian regime. It was also known to have reaped windfalls from smuggling all manner of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs.
But here before them in extraordinary detail were accounts that would have breezed past forensic accountants, giving a full reckoning of a war effort. It soon became clear that in less than three years, Isis had grown from a ragtag band of extremists to perhaps the most cash-rich and capable terror group in the world.
They had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone [an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus]. The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old,” the intelligence official said.
The Graun of course is suitably uncritical and open-mouthed at the Indiana Jones awesomeness of it all, but some might think there are a few points in here that require a little more development. The alleged oil-smuggling is old news, but now we have alleged antiquity-bootlegging too. And on a similarly epic scale, requiring more logistics, more trucks (unless they just pile the antiquities in with the oil?), more manpower. And presumably also a few people able to identify a priceless artefact when they see one.
And given the fact that black market traders in illegal antiquities barely make 1-2% of the commercial value for the artefacts they sell, for ISIS to have raked in “$36 MILLION from “Al Nabuk alone”, the antiquities they stole would have to carry a commercial value of at least $1.8 BILLION, equal in value to the entire contents of many museums and art collections.
I suggest this is unlikely to be the case. And that either the unnamed intelligence officer was mistaken, making the whole thing up, or ISIS are getting help selling their loot from some very well-connected people who know how to strike good deals.
And come to that – where does ISIS have its $2 billion or whatever figure we are now using? The Guardian story about analysing the “meticulous” accounts of their income on the “flash sticks” implies they have bank accounts, details of which were on those sticks. If so, where are these accounts? Why can’t we find them and disable them, seize the contents? If their wealth isn’t in a bank, where is it? Are they carrying $2billion in cash? Have they put it in their ISIS bank along with their ISIS currency? (Remember that? it seems to have faded, as being maybe just a step too far into lunacy). Why are ISIS as financially invulnerable as they are militarily?
Are we really sure, given all this, that ISIS are these super-rich demonic bad guys as portrayed and not just an ad hoc collection of zealots, opportunists and lunatics, tooling round the desert in matching cars, filming themselves doing vile things, and being protected by Uncle Sam for reasons of its own?
Well the mainstream media are pretty convinced. I’m not sure I am though.
But at least the astronomical and un-interrogated millions found so handily on those “flash-sticks” allowed for some easy one-stop explanations of a few things. To quote Anonymous Intelligence Source again:
Before this, the western officials had been asking us where they had gotten some of their money from, $50,000 here, or $20,000 there. It was peanuts. Now they know and we know. They had done this all themselves. There was no state actor at all behind them, which we had long known. They don’t need one.
Phew, well there you are then. It’s just ISIS, the multi-billionaire terrorist network and oil empire, branching out into another area of profitable trading. No “state actor” behind them. Nothing more to see here. Thanks for the clarification, Anonymous Intelligence Source.
Maybe it was the growing implausibility of the narrative of ISIS as COBRA that led to it being quietly pushed on the back burner for the moment, and maybe it was in an attempt to reset the paradigm that the Wall Street Journal in a paywalled article from September 16 decided to take the story in a low-tech, low-key, bare bones direction
The Islamic State is funding its rapid push into Syria and Iraq with a labyrinthine oil-smuggling operation that starts at seized Syrian oil fields, goes through makeshift refineries and can end up in jerrycans carried by mules into the hilly borderland of Turkey
Yes, you did read correctly. That word is “mules.” The Wall Street Journal is telling us ISIS is making its $1 million (or two or three or six million) a day by smuggling crude oil in jerrycans. Carried by mules.
Assuming two barrels per mule, that’s anything from 10,000 – 100,000 mules a day.
I think we should just leave it there.