Despite retreat, ISIS still earns $50 million a year from oil, says expert

Oil field in SyriaDespite its ongoing territorial retreat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is earning over $4 million a month from its involvement in the oil trade, according to a leading expert in the finances of the group. In the past, a sizeable portion of the Islamic State’s income came from oil revenues, as the group controlled several major oilfields in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. But the loss of its territory in the past year has delivered a sharp blow to the Islamic State’s finances. The group has lost virtually every oilfield that it used to control in northern Iraq, while two weeks ago it conceded Syria’s most lucrative oilfield, the Omar oilfield, which it controlled since July of 2013. In early October, the United States-led coalition estimated that the Islamic State’s oil revenues had fallen to approximately $4 million a month, down 90 percent from the group’s financial peak of $40 million a month in 2015.

But a leading expert in the Islamic State’s finances has warned that the group’s oil revenues remain formidable and should not be dismissed as insignificant. Dr. Patrick Johnston, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The Cipher Brief last week that the Sunni militant group will continue to profit from the oil trade in the foreseeable future. Johnston said that Islamic State coffers will most likely receive nearly $50 million this year from oil profits alone, an amount that remains formidable for any militant group. Much of that will come from extortion, said the RAND Corporation scientist, as groups of Islamic State fighters force commercial enterprises —including oil installations— in eastern Syria to pay them for “protection”. Additionally, the group continues to tax energy consumption in the areas that it controls, while also taxing fuel trucks that transit through areas under its control. As the militant group’s expenses shrink due to its loss of territory, and as its financial obligations decrease, its oil-derived revenue will be more than sufficient to sustain its operations, according to Johnston.

Essentially, as the Islamic State continues to transform from a state-like structure into an insurgency, its financial model is morphing accordingly, says Johnston. It follows that the US-led coalition must alter its approach into disrupting the group’s financial operations. So far, says the RAND scientist, the Counter-ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), which coordinates efforts to counter the militant group’s finances between coalition partners, has been relatively successful. A parallel effort by the US military, known as Operation TIDAL WAVE II, has managed to limit the Islamic State’s oil-related activities. But the coalition should be careful while restoring the oil industry in areas previously held by the Islamic State. Otherwise, “without rigorous monitoring and evaluation, reconstruction assistance could end up inadvertently resuscitating [the Islamic State] rather than contributing to its demise in Iraq and Syria”, warns Johnston.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2017 | Permalink

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