For months now disaffected Syrian, ISIS defectors we have been interviewing in our ISIS Defectors Interview Project have been telling us that one of the many reasons that they became disenchanted with ISIS was that their leaders were directly negotiating and selling oil to their enemy, Bashar al-Assad—oil that was then used in barrel bombs that rained back down on the Sunnis uprising against the Assad regime. This week the Wall Street Journal reported on some of the thousands of documents extracted in the May 2015 U.S. Special Forces raid against Abu Sayyaf, one of ISIS’s oil emirs (known by his nom de guerre) —confirming that indeed these defectors were telling the truth.
According to documents retrieved in the raid of Abu Sayyaf’s Deir ez-Zor hideout and now viewed by the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad entered into multimillion-dollar oil deals with ISIS. According to Newsweek, this sale of oil to Damascus helped the group to reach a peak of $40 million a month in oil revenue with the Assad regime oil deals contributing to seventy-two percent of the $289.5 million the group earned in natural-resource revenues in the six months preceding February 2015. Even now, some analysts estimate the Syrian regime is buying 20,000 barrels of oil per day from ISIS. Likewise, the Assad regime has kept the electricity on for the so-called ISIS “Caliphate”, supplying them with electricity throughout their time in power—an eerie thought when one considers the possibility of ISIS with the lights off and an inability to access the Internet.
A document identified as Memo No. 156, dated February 11, 2015 shows Abu Sayyaf, who headed the Islamic State’s Diwan of Natural Resources (the terrorist group’s oil ministry), requesting an unknown party to build investment links with businessmen allied to the Assad regime for the sale of oil to the regime. The document also reveals that ISIS already had agreements with Damascus to permit oil trucks and pipeline transit from regime-controlled fields through ISIS-controlled territory, something our defectors also told us.
Indeed, our ISIS defectors have repeatedly told us that ISIS emirs made agreements with the Assad regime for the sale of oil and some of the defectors recalled being called to act as guards for and personally witnessing regime engineers and oil specialists arriving from Damascus to the Deir ez-Zor oil fields, having come to repair the pipelines and pumping devices so that oil could be delivered and sold to the regime. When our defectors complained to and questioned their emirs about these sales they were rudely rebuffed by their leaders and told that ISIS is a “state” and able to negotiate any deal it wishes with other states, and reminded that they should not question the wisdom of their leaders. This despite that oil sold to the regime returned to haunt them, as al-Assad’s barrel bombs filled with oil—likely sold to them from ISIS—rained back down upon their heads and killed their cadres and family members.
According to The Wall Street Journal, two former oil emirs also confided to WSJ reporters that ISIS had made deals with businessman connected to the Syrian regime. The documents confirming these reports were captured when U.S. Special Forces entered Eastern Syria via Iraq, killing ISIS cadres guarding Abu Sayyaf’s compound before they also assassinated him. Abu Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf who is suspected along with her husband of having organized the sex slave trade in ISIS was also captured in the raid and later transferred to the Kurds.
Now however, Turkey has attempted to crack down on illicit trade and ISIS has also lost control of a lot of its Syrian border with Turkey to the Kurds. The funds from oil sales enable them to pay their cadres regular monthly salaries and obtain weapons—some that arrive new in boxes—according to our ISIS defectors interviews.
As ISIS swept across eastern Syria in late 2013, and early 2014, the militants seized many of Syria’s key oil fields in the Deir ez-Zor province, such as al-Tanak and al-Omar. In January 2016, Syrian Kurds recaptured al-Jasbah oil field, an area that was producing three thousand barrels of oil a day. The U.S.-led coalition, as well as Russian, air strikes have targeted oil fields held by ISIS significantly reducing its ability to refine oil and sell it to illicit buyers. Thus, despite a brisk trade with the al-Assad regime up to thirty percent of the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure has been destroyed, according to a U.S. government sources by coalition airstrikes, and oil revenues are no longer the terrorist group’s primary source of income. Still, oil revenues, down from five hundred million per year in 2014, are currently making ISIS approximately three hundred sixty-five million U.S. dollars per year, or one million U.S. dollars per day, on its oil sales, including sales to businessmen linked to the Assad regime.
ISIS’s primary source of revenue now comes from taxing those under its control (making forty-eight million U.S. dollars per year).  ISIS charges all of its “citizens” ten percent tax on income and the same percent on all cash withdrawals and an additional twenty percent tax on all services. However those revenues are also threatened with ISIS controlled territory shrinking. Up to now, ISIS also made about one billion from the seizure of bank vaults, twenty million in ransoms from hostage-taking, one hundred million from the sale of antiquities and an unknown amount from its trade in slaves and control of phosphates and cement. Our defectors also told us that ISIS sells grain stores to the Assad regime, and that they worry that without seeds and support for planting, the people currently living under ISIS may starve in upcoming seasons.
Current and Past Sources of ISIS’s Revenue
- Taxes – $576 million per year (shrinking as the group’s territory is degraded)
- Oil Revenues – $365 million per year (down from $500 million per year)
- Sale of Antiquities – $100 million estimated thus far
- Seizure of Bank Vaults – $500 million to 1 billion (one time grab)
- Ransoms from Hostage Takings – $20 million thus far
- Trade in Phosphates and Cement – Unknown
- Trade in Slaves – Unknown
That ISIS made illicit deals with the Assad regime was a major source of frustration to many of the ISIS cadres who spoke with us, and a significant reason for defecting. While conspiracy theories abound in the Middle East, and the recent conflicts have made for the strangest of alliances, some of our ISIS defectors seriously wondered if ISIS was actually a direct product of the al-Assad regime. They pointed to the fact that the regime’s military often surrendered huge stores of weapons to the militant group when retreating rather than destroy them essentially supplying ISIS with weapons, and why ISIS cadres fought more with the Free Syrian Army, killing Sunnis, than with the regime.
More details on these topics are included in our forthcoming book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of Confronting the Caliphate, Advances Press 2016.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS, is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She is currently running the ISIS Defectors Interview Projectwith Dr. Ahmet Yayla at ICSVE. Personal website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border and the Deputy Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Counter-terrorism and Operations Division in the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and al Qaeda) and violence. He has authored many works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Department of Homeland Security (November 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla witnessed (October 21st, 2006) to the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism.”
Reference for this article is: Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (April 27, 2016) ISIS’s Revenues Include Sales of Oil to the al-Assad Regime, ICSVE Brief Report http://www.icsve.com