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Trump, ISIS and Iraqi Oil

Public Policy

President Donald Trump claimed that the Islamic State, or ISIS, would not exist if the U.S. “kept the oil when we got out” of Iraq. In fact, ISIS largely has been funded through extortion, robbery, taxes and Syrian oil, according to government reports and terrorism financing experts.

“Trump is absolutely correct that oil sales have been a critical part of ISIS’s revenue stream since at least early 2014, but he’s wrong that an ongoing American occupation of the Iraqi oilfields would have bankrupted ISIS,” Peter Harrell, the deputy assistant secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions in the State Department under President Obama, told us in an email. “If you look at the facts on the ground ISIS has likely always produced more oil in Syria than in Iraq.”

Howard J. Shatz, a member of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, concurred. In a phone interview, Shatz — who is now a senior economist at the RAND Corporation and whose research includes the finances and management of ISIS — told us revenue from Iraqi oil fields “would not have made much of a difference” to ISIS.

“They did have control over some Iraq oil fields, but they were nothing compared with Syrian oil fields,” Shatz said.

‘Should Have Kept the Oil’

As a candidate, Trump frequently mentioned that the United States should have kept the oil in Iraq as compensation for the money that the U.S. spent during the Iraq War and reconstruction. It is something that he has been saying for years, dating to at least 2011.

In remarks he made at the CIA during his first full day in office, Trump brought up the Iraq oil fields again. He turned at one point to Rep. Mike Pompeo, who has since been confirmed by the Senate as Trump’s CIA director, and suggested that ISIS probably would not exist “if we kept the oil” in Iraq.

Trump, Jan. 21: I always used to say, keep the oil. I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil. Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, should have kept the oil.

The president repeated that claim three times during an interview with ABC News’ David Muir that aired on Jan. 25, when Trump was asked about his remarks at the CIA.

Muir, Jan. 25: You brought up Iraq and something you said that could affect American troops in recent days. You said, “We should’ve kept the oil but okay maybe we’ll have another chance.” What did you mean by that?

Trump: Well, we should’ve kept the oil when we got out. And, you know, it’s very interesting, had we taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS because they fuel themselves with the oil. That’s where they got the money.

In that same interview, Trump later said, “We should have taken the oil. You wouldn’t have ISIS if we took the oil.” And still later he said, “We should’ve taken the oil. And if we took the oil you wouldn’t have ISIS.”

The Roots of ISIS

Let’s briefly recap how and when ISIS formed, and then look at how it was financed.

As we have written before, the terrorist group has its roots in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, formed al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I) in October 2004, according to a Jan. 18 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, and shortly after “AQ-I leaders repackaged the group as a coalition called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI),” CRS said.

Islamic State of Iraq became known as ISIS in April 2013.

CRS, Jan. 18: By early 2013, the group was conducting dozens of deadly attacks a month inside Iraq and had begun operations in neighboring Syria. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced his intent to merge his forces in Iraq and Syria with those of the Syria-based, Al Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al Nusra (Support Front), under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS).

Experts we interviewed attributed the rise of ISIS to multiple factors, most flowing from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: sectarian strife in Iraq (Sunni opposition to U.S. forces and the ruling Shia party); decisions by the U.S.-led provisional coalition government in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army and ban the Baath Party, driving Sunnis into militant groups; the rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shia government further ostracized Sunnis; the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011 — a date agreed to by President Bush and carried out by the Obama administration; the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011; and the weakening of the Iraqi army, which abandoned its posts in Mosul in June 2014 and gave control of the city to ISIS.

The Financing of ISIS

For this story, we interviewed experts on ISIS and terrorism financing and reviewed government statements and reports regarding the group’s finances.

In its early years, the Islamic State of Iraq’s revenue-generating activities “closely resembled that of petty criminality, including significant revenues generated from sales of stolen goods,” according to “Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money and Terror in Iraq 2005-2010,” a 2016 report co-authored by Shatz for the RAND Corporation.

RAND Corporation report, May 19, 2016: ISI’s revenue-generating activities in its formative years in Anbar governorate closely resembled that of petty criminality, including significant revenues generated from sales of stolen goods. In its new stronghold of Mosul, the group made money from new sources, particularly theft and extortion from the local oil sector and contract-based projects that were vulnerable to the group’s influence. ISI’s revenue-generating activities in Mosul in 2008 and 2009 closely resembled activities commonly used by organized-crime syndicates.

The RAND Corporation’s report is based on documents and ledgers obtained from high-level officials within the Islamic State of Iraq. Shatz told us the group’s oil revenue was not a source of financing from 2005 to 2008, and there was not much from 2010 to 2012.

But for a brief time, from August 2008 to early 2009, the Islamic State of Iraq received about 39 percent of its revenue from Iraqi oil fields.

“But don’t forget this is happening at a time when we have 150,000 troops on the ground, when we are working very closely with Iraq on security, conducting a withering counter-terrorism strategy,” Shatz said, referring to the heavy presence of U.S. troops in the late 2000s. “This says we can’t be every place at every time.”

Luay al-Khatteeb, the founding director of Iraq Energy Institute, wrote in February 2016 that the importance of oil revenue for ISIS and its predecessor was “vastly over-estimated,” writing “oil was not and is still not critical for IS.”

“Its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, managed to cause chaos for almost a decade without control over a single wellhead,” wrote Khatteeb, who is also a nonresident fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

In March 2011, the Syrian civil war started and the terrorist group began taking control of that country’s oil producing regions, as explained in an April 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service.

CRS, April 10, 2015: Much of the physical and economic damage to the Syrian oil sector took place between March 2011 and June 2014, when IS forces expanded their control of oil producing regions in northeast.

By late 2012, the Islamic State was reaping “massive cashflows” from eastern Syrian oil wells, selling the crude oil back to the Syrian government, as reported by the Guardian.

Guardian, June 15, 2014: 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 oil revenue was not the group’s primary source of funds in 2014 or 2015, according to U.S. terrorism financing officials and government reports.

In a February 2015 speech, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Jennifer Fowler listed four primary revenue sources, in order:

  • Robbery and extortion, $500 million. “Treasury estimates that during 2014, ISIL probably gained access to at least half of a billion dollars from seizing control of state-owned banks in northern and western Iraq.”
  • The sale of oil, $100 million. “Last year ISIL may have earned as much as several million dollars per week, or $100 million in total, from the sale of oil and oil products to local smugglers who, in turn, sell them to regional actors, notably the Assad regime,” referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
  • Ransom, $20 million. “In 2014, we estimate that ISIL earned at least $20 million from collecting ransoms for kidnapped victims.”
  • Donations, figure not provided. “Foreign donations represented an important but comparatively smaller source of revenue for ISIL in 2014. However, externally raised funds are used frequently to finance the travel of extremists to Syria and Iraq. Of note, at least 19,000 fighters from more than 90 countries have left their home countries to travel to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL.”

Harrell, who was the deputy assistant secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions from 2012 to 2014, told us in an email that revenue from Iraqi oil fields was not as important as robbery and other criminal activity.

“Within Iraq, ISIS’s largest sources of revenue were robbery and looting — for example, in 2014 ISIS may have looted more than $400 million from the Iraqi central bank branch in Mosul (when ISIS overran Mosul in 2014),” Harrell said. “ISIS also always extorted large sums of money from the population under its control in Iraq.”

In her speech, Fowler did not say how much of ISIS’s oil revenue came from Iraq in 2014. But al-Khatteeb of the Iraq Energy Institute in a September 2014 CNN interview estimated at that time that two-thirds of ISIS’s oil production came from Syria: 25,000 barrels per day from Iraq and 50,000 barrels per day from Syria.

ISIS generated much more oil revenue in 2015. But again, it was not the group’s primary source of financing, and most oil revenue still came from Syrian oil fields — not Iraqi oil fields.

ISIS had total revenues of $1.18 billion in 2015, according to a 2016 report by the inspectors general for the State Department, Defense Department and US AID. The terrorist group’s primary source of financing that year was extortion, stolen goods and taxes, at a combined total of $600 billion. Oil accounted for $480 billion.

That report didn’t say how much oil revenue came from Iraq and how much came from Syria. However, a former Bush administration counterterrorism official told the House Financial Services Committee in May 2015 that about 90 percent of oil produced by ISIS came from Syrian oil fields.

“The group is estimated to produce forty-four thousand barrels a day from Syrian wells and four thousand barrels a day from Iraqi ones. The group then sells the crude to truckers and middlemen, netting an estimated $1 to $3 million a day,” said Celina Realuyo, who served as the State Department director of Counterterrorism Finance Programs from 2002 to 2006 and is now a professor at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University.

At a Nov. 13, 2015, press conference, Col. Steve Warren, a defense spokesman, said about two-thirds of ISIS’ oil revenue comes from one region in Syria along the eastern border with Iraq. “We estimate that about two-thirds of their oil revenue comes from the Deir ez-Zor region,” Warren said.

While ISIS has controlled most of Syrian oil fields, the group has had control of only some smaller oil fields in Northern Iraq, Shatz said. Iraq’s principal petroleum centers are located in the south and have been largely unaffected by the Iraq War and Syrian civil war.

For that reason, Shatz said that ISIS’ revenue from Iraqi oil fields has been helpful, but not essential to the group’s finances.

“Even if the Northern Iraqi fields had been well protected [by the U.S.], it would not have made much of a difference because they had Syrian fields,” Shatz said.

Trump said “you wouldn’t have ISIS” if the U.S. had “kept the oil” in Iraq, because “that’s where they got the money.” But the evidence shows ISIS had a diversified portfolio and received more of its finances from robbery, extortion, taxes and Syrian oil than it did from Iraqi oil fields.

fact check

15 Comments on "Trump, ISIS and Iraqi Oil"

  1. Anonymous on Sat, 28th Jan 2017 3:03 pm 

    Disclaimer. This ‘fact check’ regarding the USlamic state contains almost no actual ‘facts’.

    Fake fact check, if you prefer.

    These idiots dont know the difference between a billion, and a million. Maybe Boat writes for these retards. The USlmaic state apparently stole 480 BILLION worth of oil, and took in 600b total. That’s only slightly smaller than turkeys entire GDP 717b, or Switzerland’s (660b). Maybe a spell check would be in order instead.

    I think there is a better term one could use, to describe the bullshit above, what is it that the donald calls them, alternative facts, isn’t that the term?

  2. Davy on Sat, 28th Jan 2017 3:18 pm 

    Fact check: Anymous, is that like the same as when you claimed the Americans took all that Canadian tar sand shit you guys call oil? LOL. I thought so. Boy wonder, go back down stairs and play your “Call of Duty”. That is something you can act smart at.

  3. Anonymous on Sat, 28th Jan 2017 3:45 pm 

    LoL, our very own inbred itinerant sheep fu…err farmer weighs in. Well done exceptionalist.

    You’re just as fact-challenged as ever. Why dont you apply for a job writing for these retards? If you can pull yourself out, I mean, away from your sheep that is.

  4. Truth Has A Liberal Bias on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 1:32 am 

    Is Trump retarded?

  5. Davy on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 5:29 am 

    Liberal butt love, where have you been? Have you been embarrassed with your pussy country and your twink leader? In know it must be hard to come on here with a straight faced and be anti-American when you look so foolish being from such a little insignificant no backbone country of pussies.

  6. Cloggie on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 6:26 am 

    Made it clear that I “love” that Trump has become the new president, mainly from an “enemy of my enemies” perspective, as I loath the US-establishment 1933-2016.

    Having said that, there are a lot of things I resolutely reject about Trump:

    – torture plans
    – fondling of the Churchill bronze
    – energy policies
    – understanding of history, like ISIS
    – brutish “let’s steel Iraq oil”

    Trump is a jerk, but he (temporarily?) defeated far greater jerks, so I still hope he succeeds, from a perspective of European survival interests. Next target: Merkel.

    ISIS is a creation of the US deep state, that gave the nod to the Sunny neighbors of Syria to attempt to topple Assad, who was not yet a meek member of the US empire, like KSA, Gulf States and Turkey already were.

    They wanted to repeat the smashing success of regime change in Afghanistan using the services of the Jihadists to get rid of the Soviets, which succeeded:

    But the US should have known from the Iraq-2003 example that things don’t always go as planned (Baghdad had become a satellite of Iran) and that in general Jihadists have an agenda of their own: a Caliphate.

    US to Jihadists: we give you weapons if you defeat Assad and establish demockkressy, wimmen’s rights and gay pride parade’s.

    Jihadists to the US: sure thing, now give us the weapons.
    (McCain and ISIS chieftain al-Baghdadi, when everything still looked honkey-dory)

    Everybody knows how that worked out: Assad still in place, Russia more prestige than ever and Turkey’s position as key Western ally becoming ever more shaky… because Erdogan smells the opportunity to set up an Islamic sort of EU, better known as the Caliphate/neo-Ottoman empire with him in the role as the Sultan.

    Turkey wants to be the archaic leader of the Islamic World, not a meek member of the EU or the West.

  7. Cloggie on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 6:55 am 

    Drain the swamp latest:

    Alt-right arrives at security council.

    Bannon part of it.

  8. Cloggie on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 7:02 am 

    MTV is going to be Great Again… in Trans-Appalachia/Greater Baltimore:

    The joint is owned by a Sumner Murray Rothstein, who is not as German as you would hope him to be and who is engaged in a life long struggle to hurt the interest of white folks world wide and let their countries become overrun by third worlders. And there can always be devirilized white chappies found [0:24] (that’s probably how Ghung looked like when he was 20) to help digging their own grave.

  9. Davy on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 7:39 am 

    “Drain the swamp latest”. Kudos to Trump for having the balls to take on the wounded deep state and 5th column. It remains to be seen how this will turn out but I see his well place highly competent insiders as the strength he needed to do this. Bannon is important in keeping Trumps nationalism and bilateralism focused. The conversation with Putin on Saturday was heartening. We are witnessing true power much like what Putin did in Russia a few years ago by coopting the oligarchs. Liberal democracy is dying but back to working because of this dying. Trump is doing what he said he would do in the election.

    The Trump revolution is a force but not yet reality. It has left the conservatives but especially the liberals in disarray. What we need now is a real opposition both conservative and liberal that is not corrupted and failed. For Trump’s policies to be beneficial there must be a legitimate opposition. We are in a dangerous period of flux. Trump could become too powerful and too disruptive. These are the times of civil war and Ides of March. Who might be the Judas in Trump’s inner circle? Is Trumpism destine to be a true revolution? This is more than Cheetos whiners can get their arms around. Snowflakes are oblivious to these deeper realities and seek out safe spaces in fear as their delusional politically correct world dissolves before them. Little do they realize this is what was in store for us with or without Trump. It is called the “End of the world as we know it”

    It is strange to be called a Trump supporter because I am not. Part of it is I see life from the view point of decline not growth. Most people today are growth(ers). Trump is a denier of science and a rich asshole. I especially have problems with his environmental policies. I am a believer in the reality of the onset of decline and with this decline the possible collapse of civilization. Some of Trump’s change is vital because we were going in the wrong direction. What we need now is destructive change and an existential crisis to change bad behavior and attitudes. Plenty of what is Trump are those bad behaviors and bad attitudes. Yet, what Trump is doing is destructive and just what is needed.

    This type of change was never going to be how most want it because we are too far into overshoot at multiple levels. Many talked about change but now that it may be a reality are terrified of it. The liberal extreme and elite ideas of safe spaces and politically correctness are history. From here on out we are talking a civil conflict of reality with unreality. That is the modern definition of crisis. Crisis defines and clarifies. It is my hope that at least at the level of the global nuclear umbrella we can keep those forces quiet. There is nothing that can change the pain and suffering of the decline ahead. The delusional pussyflakes can hide but reality is finally back in charge.

  10. Davy on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 8:10 am 

    Meanwhile over in makatiland here is a revolution makati believes in:

    “Project Duterte: RT looks into Philippines’ war on drugs”

    “Thousands have been killed in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte unleashed his war on drugs and crime. Street murders without trial, vigilantes joining death squads, cramped jails and destroyed lives: RT’s documentary unit combed the streets of the Philippines to hear the voices of both victim and executioner. Human rights activists working in the Philippines told RT that they are seeing “an alarming increase” in the number of recorded deaths, with widespread allegations of extra judicial killings. The country’s capital Manila is frequently awash with bodies – killed by death squads or vigilantes, as well as other special groups who ruthlessly seeking to eradicate the drug threat. Many of the murder victims have distinctive signs such as “pusher” left on their dead bodies.”

    “More than 26 million Filipinos are considered poor with 12 million of them living in extreme poverty official statistics released in spring stated. Many don’t even have money to have a funeral for their loved ones.”

    “The war on drugs started with the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the summer of 2016. Since then, there have been over 5,900 deaths linked to Duterte’s war, according to statistics released by the national police in December. Of those, 2,086 have been killed in police operations and 3,841 in extrajudicial killings. Over 40,000 have been arrested.”

  11. joe on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 8:39 am 

    Just wait for the civil war to start there. Dutertes actions will justify the results, because when the president is lawless so are the people. Theres a lesson for Trump. You reap that which you sow. Right now Trump is acting within the law, but I wonder whats going to happen in 90 days when his refugee order is finished, sign another? Iraq already wants to ban Americans from their country. Lets say they just build a wall too and let America fight extremism itself.

  12. penury on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 10:30 am 

    Joe, you rhetorically asked “what is going to happen in 90 days?” If the protestors are serious they can talk to the Congress and have a bill passed which changes Federal Law and allows for the entry and relocation of all these people who wish to stay. Remember there are laws and there are methods of changing laws. The reason the U.S. is a very corrupt society today is that most laws are ignored. And yes, there are laws about immigration. Who Knew, they can be enforced.

  13. Apneaman on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 10:53 am 

    Duhhhhh….I voted fer Trump cause he ain’t fixing to gets us into nuke war with the Ruskies.

    China military official says war with US under Donald Trump ‘becoming practical reality’

    Sino-US relations are becoming more tense under America’s new administration

    “War with the US under Donald Trump is “not just a slogan” and becoming a “practical reality”, a senior Chinese military official has said.

    The remarks were published on the People’s Liberation Army website, apparently in response to the aggressive rhetoric towards China from America’s new administration.

    They communicated a view from inside the Central Military Commission, which has overall authority of China’s armed forces.”

    Nuclear war is no longer the stuff of dystopian novellas – it’s a very real and immediate threat
    The Doomsday Clock shows we’re closer to the apocalypse than we have been since the 1950s. Thanks to Trump’s comments on climate change and nuclear arms, we should take it very seriously

    “Small unsettling things are also happening amid the giant upheavals of Trump-world, barely 10 days old but already built on the chaos theory of government and already crammed with willful ignorance and “alternative facts”.

    George Orwell’s 1984 has shot to the top of Amazon bestseller list, while demand has surged for other dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And now there’s the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and its Doomsday Clock, which shows how near we are to the apocalypse.”

    See how, as a response to fear, the humans turn to stories? It’s all stories from birth to death and they are all made up by the frightened humans.

    I’m not too worried or surprised about rich, arrogant, old white men playing their power games, they are always the ones who start the wars and do not care about you and your children and spouses. You’re just little chess pieces to them. I don’t have a woman or any kids that I would have to witness being incinerated or die of radiation poison if Cheeto loses that volatile temper and pushes the button or leaves the Chinese with the impression that their only chance is to strike first – it’s happened before and many times. Best to have a ‘get out of suffering card’ in reserve for you and yours in case the bombs start falling. I have a get out of suffering card in my closet. I got an old buddy who is still in the life to “score” me 15 fentanyl. I also have a mickey of Silent Sam vodka and 10 gravol to chase it down…….. Just in case.

  14. Davy on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 11:14 am 

    Cheeto whiner from snowflake land fails to realize this is the message phase for the US and the Chinese. Let’s wait and see how a fluid and evolving relationship develops. Instead of wailing Cheeto whiners rationalizations from a clearly propaganda driven Chinese news source let’s wait and see what a difficult to read Trump and his shrewd Chinese counterparts do. Trump is likely saving China for last to let them stew a little to soften them up.

  15. Cloggie on Sun, 29th Jan 2017 12:13 pm 

    In Eastern Europe it is 1933 again:

    Right-wing governments are denouncing the efforts by Soros and his NGO subsidiaries to subvert their nations with mass migration.

    The main crusader is Orban-Hungary. The “myth” of world conquest attempts by the Soros folks is rampant in Eastern Europe. Orban wants to sweep all NGOs from his country, including the communist “Open Society Foundation”, aiming at destroying nations through mass migration.

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