Over the course of the last four or so weeks, the media has paid quite a bit of attention to Islamic State’s lucrative trade in “stolen” crude.
On November 16, in a highly publicized effort, US warplanes destroyed 116 ISIS oil trucks in Syria. 45 minutes prior, leaflets were dropped advising drivers (who Washington is absolutely sure are not ISIS members themselves) to “get out of [their] trucks and run away.”
The peculiar thing about the US strikes is that it took The Pentagon nearly 14 months to figure out that the most effective way to cripple Islamic State’s oil trade is to bomb... the oil.
Prior to November, the US “strategy” revolved around bombing the group’s oil infrastructure. As it turns out, that strategy was minimally effective at best and it’s not entirely clear that an effort was made to inform The White House, Congress, and/or the public about just how little damage the airstrikes were actually inflicting. There are two possible explanations as to why Centcom may have sought to make it sound as though the campaign was going better than it actually was, i) national intelligence director James Clapper pulled a Dick Cheney and pressured Maj. Gen. Steven Grove into delivering upbeat assessments, or ii) The Pentagon and the CIA were content with ineffectual bombing runs because intelligence officials were keen on keeping Islamic State’s oil revenue flowing so the group could continue to operate as a major destabilizing element vis-a-vis the Assad regime.
Ultimately, Russia cried foul at the perceived ease with which ISIS transported its illegal oil and once it became clear that Moscow was set to hit the group’s oil convoys, the US was left with virtually no choice but to go along for the ride. Washington’s warplanes destroyed another 280 trucks earlier this week. Russia claims to have vaporized more than 1,000 transport vehicles in November.
Of course the most intriguing questions when it comes to Islamic State’s $400 million+ per year oil business, are: where does this oil end up and who is facilitating delivery? In an effort to begin answering those questions we wrote:
- The Most Important Question About ISIS That Nobody Is Asking
- Meet The Man Who Funds ISIS: Bilal Erdogan, The Son Of Turkey's President
Turkey's role in facilitating the sale of Islamic State oil has been the subject of some debate for quite a while. From "NATO is harbouring the Islamic State: Why France’s brave new war on ISIS is a sick joke, and an insult to the victims of the Paris attacks", by Nafeez Ahmed:
"Turkey has played a key role in facilitating the life-blood of ISIS’ expansion: black market oil sales. Senior political and intelligence sources in Turkey and Iraq confirm that Turkish authorities have actively facilitated ISIS oil sales through the country. Last summer, Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, an MP from the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, estimated the quantity of ISIS oil sales in Turkey at about $800 million—that was over a year ago. By now, this implies that Turkey has facilitated over $1 billion worth of black market ISIS oil sales to date."
Here's what former CHP lawmaker Ali Ediboglu said last year:
“$800 million worth of oil that ISIS obtained from regions it occupied this year [the Rumeilan oil fields in northern Syria — and most recently Mosul] is being sold in Turkey. They have laid pipes from villages near the Turkish border at Hatay. Similar pipes exist also at [the Turkish border regions of] Kilis, Urfa and Gaziantep. They transfer the oil to Turkey and parlay it into cash. They take the oil from the refineries at zero cost. Using primitive means, they refine the oil in areas close to the Turkish border and then sell it via Turkey. This is worth $800 million.”
Earlier this month, Ediboglu told Russian media that "ISIL holds the key to these deposits and together with a certain group of persons, consisting of those close to Barzani and some Turkish businessmen, they are engaged in selling this oil" ("Barzani" is a reference to Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region).
But even as Turkey's ties to the ISIS oil trade have been hiding in plain sight for the better part of two years, the Western media largely ignores the issue (or at least the scope of it and the possible complicity of the Erdogan government) because after all, Turkey is a NATO member.
Unfortunately for Ankara, Erdogan's move to shoot down a Russian Su-24 near the Syrian border on Tuesday prompted an angry Vladimir Putin to throw Turkey under the ISIS oil bus for the entire world to see. Here's what Putin said yesterday after a meeting in Moscow with French President Francois Hollande:
"Vehicles, carrying oil, lined up in a chain going beyond the horizon. The views resemble a living oil pipe stretched from ISIS and rebel controlled areas of Syria into Turkey. Day and night they are going to Turkey. Trucks always go there loaded, and back from there – empty. We are talking about a commercial-scale supply of oil from the occupied Syrian territories seized by terrorists. It is from these areas [that oil comes from], and not with any others. And we can see it from the air, where these vehicles are going."
“We assume that the top political leadership of Turkey might not know anything about this [illegal oil trade although that's] hard to believe," Putin continued, adding that “if the top political leadership doesn’t know anything about this, let them find out."
Obviously, Putin is being sarcastic. He very clearly believes that the Erdogan government is heavily involved in the transport and sale of ISIS crude. In the immediate aftermath of the Su-24 incident, Putin said the following about Ankara:
- PUTIN: OIL FROM ISLAMIC STATE IS BEING SHIPPED TO TURKEY
- PUTIN SAYS ISLAMIC STATE GETS CASH BY SELLING OIL TO TURKEY
As part of our continuing effort to track and document the ISIS oil trade, we present the following excerpts from a study by George Kiourktsoglou, Visiting Lecturer, University of Greenwich, London and Dr Alec D Coutroubis, Principal Lecturer, University of Greenwich, London. The paper, entitled "ISIS Gateway To Global Crude Oil Markets," looks at tanker charter rates from the port of Ceyhan in an effort to determine if Islamic State crude is being shipped from Southeast Turkey.
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The tradesmen/smugglers responsible for the transportation and sale of the black gold send convoys of up to thirty trucks to the extraction sites of the commodity. They settle their trades with ISIS on site, encouraged by customer friendly discounts and deferred payment schemes. In this way, crude leaves Islamic State-run wells promptly and travels through insurgent-held parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Since allied U.S. air-raids do not target the truck lorries out of fear of provoking a backlash from locals, the transport operations are being run efficiently, taking place most of times in broad daylight. Traders lured by high profits are active in Syria (even in government-held territories), Iraq and south-east Turkey.
The supply chain comprises the following localities: Sanliura, Urfa, Hakkari, Siirt, Batman, Osmaniya, Gaziantep, Sirnak, Adana, Kahramarmaras, Adiyaman and Mardin. The string of trading hubs ends up in Adana, home to the major tanker shipping port of Ceyhan.
Ceyhan is a city in south-eastern Turkey, with a population of 110,000 inhabitants, of whom 105,000 live in the major metropolitan area. It is the second most developed and most populous city of Adana Province, after the capital Adana with a population of 1,700,000. It is situated on the Ceyhan River which runs through the city and it is located 43 km east of Adana. Ceyhan is the transportation hub for Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Russian oil and natural gas (Municipality of Ceyhan 2015).
The port of Ceyhan plays host to a marine oil terminal that is situated in the Turkish Mediterranean and has been operating since 2006. It receives hydrocarbons for further loading in tankers, which carry the commodity to world markets.
Additionally, the port features a cargo pier and an oil-terminal, both of 23.2m depth that can load tankers of more than 500 feet in length (Ports.com 2015). The annual export capacity of the terminal runs as high as 50 million tonnes of oil. The terminal is operated by Botas International Limited (BIL), a Turkish state company that also operates the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline on the territory of Turkey.
The quantities of crude oil that are being exported to the terminal in Ceyhan, exceed the mark of one million barrels per day. Putting this number into context and given that ISIS has never been able to trade daily more than 45,000 barrels of oil (see Section 2, ‘The Upstream Oil Business of ISIS’, page 2), it becomes evident that the detection of similar quantities of smuggled crude cannot take place through stock-accounting methods. However, the authors of the present paper believe that there is another proxy-indicator, far more sensitive to quantities of ultracheap smuggled crude. This is the charter rates for tankers loading at Ceyhan.
The Baltic Exchange (2015 a) tracks the charter rates on major seaborne trading routes of crude oil. To render its service more efficient and easily understood, it uses the system of Baltic Dirty Tanker Indices (Baltic Exchange 2015 b). One of these indices used to be the BDTI TD 11, 80,000 Cross Mediterranean from Baniyas, Syria to Laveras, France (see Map VI). Route 11 was discontinued in September 2011, due to Syria’s civil war and soon thereafter, it was replaced by BDTI TD 19 (TD19-TCE_Calculation 2015), of exactly the same technical specifications as BDTI TD 11, with the exception of the loading port of Ceyhan instead of Baniyas.
From July 2014 until February 2015, the curve of TD 19 features three unusual spikes that do not match the trends featured by the rest of the Middle East trade-routes (see Graph IV):
- The first spike develops from the 10th of July 2014 until the 21st, lasting approximately ten days. It coincides with the fall of Syria’s largest oil field, the AlOmar, in the hands of ISIS (Reuters 2014);
- The second spike takes place from the end of October until the end of November 2014, lasting one month. It happens at the same time with fierce fighting between fundamentalists and the Syrian army over the control of the Jhar and Mahr gas fields, as well as the Hayyan gas company in the east of Homs province (International Business Times 2014; Albawada News 214);
- The third spike lasts from the end of January 2015 until the 10th of February, stretching roughly ten days. It happens simultaneously with a sustained US-led campaign of airstrikes pounding ISIS strongholds in and around the town of Hawija east of the oil-rich Kirkuk (Rudaw 2015);
The authors of this paper would like to make it clear from the very beginning that this has not been the case of a ‘smoking gun’. The evidence has been inconclusive. But even if volumes of ISIS crude found their way, beyond any reasonable doubt, to the international crude oil markets via the Ceyhan terminal, this fact would not conclusively point to collusion between the Turkish authorities and the shadow network of smugglers, let alone ISIS operatives.
However, having clarified such a politically sensitive issue, the authors believe that there are strong hints to an illicit supply chain that ships ISIS crude from Ceyhan. Primary research points to a considerably active shadow network of crude oil smugglers and traders (see section 2.1, page 3), who channel ISIS crude to southeast Turkey from northeast Syria and northwest Iraq. Given the existence of Route E 90, the corresponding transportation of oil poses no unsurmountable geographic and topological challenges.
An additional manifestation of the invisible nexus between Ceyhan and ISIS became evident through the concurrent study of the tanker charter rates from the port and the timeline of the terrorists’ military engagements (see section 3.4 on this page). It seems that whenever the Islamic State is fighting in the vicinity of an area hosting oil assets, the 13 exports from Ceyhan promptly spike. This may be attributed to an extra boost given to crude oil smuggling with the aim of immediately generating additional funds, badly needed for the supply of ammunition and military equipment. Unfortunately, in this case too, the authors cannot be categorical.
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No, it can't be categorical and frankly, if the authors claimed to have discovered indisputable proof, we would be immediately skeptical. What they have done however, is identify a statistical anomaly and develop a plausible theory to explain it.
The key thing to note, is that this is a state-run terminal and it certainly seems as though charter rates spike around significant oil-related events involving Islamic State. Indeed, the fact that the authors mention collusion between Turkish authorities and ISIS operatives (even if they do so on the way to hedging their conclusions) indicates that the researchers think such a partnership is possible.
Finally, note that Ceyhan is less than two hours by car from Incirlik air base from which the US is flying anti-ISIS sorties. In other words, ISIS oil is being shipped to the world right down the road from Washington's preferred Mid-East forward operating base.
Now that we can add what looks like quantitative evidence that ISIS oil is shipped from Turkey to the voluminous qualitative evidence supplied by ex-Turkish lawmakers, investigative reporters, and the Russian government (to name just a few sources), we can now proceed to consider one final question: where does the crude that helps to fund Bakr al-Baghdadi's caliphate ultimately end up? More on that over the weekend.