Last week, in the wake of Russian and US airstrikes on ISIS oil convoys, we asked three important questions:
- Who are the commodity trading firms that have been so generously buying millions of smuggled oil barrels procured by the Islamic State at massive discounts to market, and then reselling them to other interested parties? In other words, who are the middlemen?
- Can it possibly be true, as officials now claim, that the Obama administration refrained from bombing Islamic State oil trucks because Washington thought the group was “only” making $100 million per year instead of $400 million?
- Is it likely, considering how cavalier the US is about collateral damage from drone strikes, that The Pentagon refused to take out Islamic State’s revenue stream because the military was afraid of killing a few “innocent” truck drivers who by definition knew they were transporting illegal crude for a terrorist organization?
The first question is, for now anyway, unanswerable. As to the second and third, here’s what we said:
Perhaps the US overestimated the effect its airstrikes were having on Islamic State’s oil production capabilities and perhaps The Pentagon was concerned with killing innocent truck drivers, but it could also be that, as Sergei Lavrov suggested earlier this month, the US has until now intentionally avoided hitting ISIS where it hurts in order to keep them in the game and ensure they can still be effective at destabilizing Assad. If you cut off the oil trade, they lose the ability to battle the regime.
Whatever the case, it's too late now, because just as Russian airstrikes and the Iranian ground presence forced the US to do something - anything - to prove to the world that America is serious about fighting terrorism, Moscow's targeting of ISIS oil convoys has forced the US to get on board (the Russians are going to hit them anyway, so there's no point in vacillating).
American airstrikes reportedly destroyed 116 oil tanker trucks earlier this month and another 280 today in Paris mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud's former fiefdom of Deir ez-Zor.
Of course the US would hate to catch ISIS off guard risk killing innocent truck drivers, so prior to the November 16 strike, US planes dropped leaflets warning the drivers to "get out of your trucks now, and run away from them." Here's the leaflet (note the stick figures running for their lives):
Here's some commentary from Colonel Steve Warren from Operation Inherent Resolve (delivered at a press conference earlier this month):
Early Sunday morning in Al-Bukamal, which is the southern blue circle number two, you see two blue circles there. They both represent Tidal Wave II operations, but we're in the southern one -- the one further towards the bottom of your screen, there.
In Al-Bukamal, we destroyed 116 tanker trucks, which we believe will reduce ISIL's ability to transport its stolen oil products.
This is our first strike against tanker trucks, and to minimize risks to civilians, we conducted a leaflet drop prior to the strike. We did a show of force, by -- we had aircraft essentially buzz the trucks at low altitude.
So, I do have copy of the leaflet, and I have got some videos, so why don't you pull the leaflet up. Let me take a look at it so I can talk about it.
As you can see, it's a fairly simple leaflet, it says, "Get out of your trucks now, and run away from them." A very simple message.
And then, also, "Warning: airstrikes are coming. Oil trucks will be destroyed. Get away from your oil trucks immediately. Do not risk your life."
And so, these are the leaflets that we dropped -- about 45 minutes before the airstrikes actually began.
And here's an amusing bit from the post-presser Q&A:
Q: On Bob's question, too, if -- if it's so important to cut off the oil shipments, the critical revenue source for ISIS, why did it take so long to take out 116 oil tanker trucks?
COL. WARREN: No, that's a great question, Jim. Thanks for asking it.
So, a little history on Operation Tidal Wave II. Initially, we, you know, we have been striking oil infrastructure targets since the very beginning of this operation.
What we found out was that many of our strikes were only minimally effective. We would strike pieces of the oil infrastructure that were easily repaired.
When we came to that realization, we conducted some more study -- I think I talked about this last week, a little bit -- we conducted some more study, and determined how to better strike the oil infrastructure itself, different pieces of the system.
During the course of that study, we also determined that part of the illicit oil system, from the oil coming out of the ground at a -- at a pump head, to the end of that chain, which is the distribution network.
So, this is a decision that we had to make. We have not struck these trucks before. We assessed that these trucks, while although they are being used for operations that support ISIL, the truck drivers, themselves, probably not members of ISIL; they're probably just civilians. So we had to figure out a way around that. We're not in this business to kill civilians, we're in this business to stop ISIL -- to defeat ISIL.
So basically, it took the US 13 months to figure out that the best way to cripple Islamic State's oil trade was to bomb - the oil.
To the extent that occurred to anyone previously, the idea was dismissed because the truck drivers are "probably not members of ISIL." Well then who are they? Sure, they may not be suiting up in all black and firing RPGs at Toyota Corollas packed with "spies" for a propaganda video, but it's not like they don't know who they're working for.
Also, as mentioned above, the US hasn't exactly been shy about engaging targets even when there are women, children, and bedridden hospital patients in the vicinity so it's hard to imagine that anyone at the Pentagon was worried about Islamic State's truck drivers.
Whatever the case, the US is apprently set to give ISIS a 45 minute heads up when The Pentagon plans to bomb an oil convoy which we suppose makes sense.
It's the least the CIA can do for an old friend.