The Islamic State (IS) is largely funded, it is often said, by oil revenues. This New York Times claims that the value of the output of the oil fields under IS control is $1 million to $2 million dollars per day. It goes on to state that the Iraqi fields under their control "may produce 25,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil a day -- worth a minimum of $1.2 million in the underground market."

The question: Who makes up this underground market? To whom is IS selling their oil?


3 Answers 3


Islamic State oil is being sold to organized criminals in Turkey, who conceal the oil's origin and sell it on the open market.

This activity was spearheaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a means to circumvent the oil embargo.

It is an open question to what extent Turkey is deliberately allowing this to occur.

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    Thanks for the answer. Do you have any sources to back up some of your claims? Oct 14, 2014 at 17:31
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    @ChrisMueller Pleasure. This seems to be well established consensus in the media, here is one example: bostonglobe.com/news/world/2014/09/13/…
    – John Woo
    Oct 14, 2014 at 17:41
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    Unfortunately, economics (black market or other) has a nasty habit of trumping morality. Maybe intelligence services should have easier access to bank accounts, but until and unless all economies become fully digital, there will always be problems tracking gold/paper-money/etc.
    – Phil Lello
    Mar 31, 2016 at 15:50
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    @PhilLello although that would be helpful it would not be too helpful since terrorist organisations primarily use the Hawallah network to transfer funds. Jun 1, 2017 at 10:33
  • These aren't small packets of drugs which can be smuggled across the border. Attributing this to criminal gangs is, IMHO, painting a much rosier picture than what must have taken place.
    – einpoklum
    Jun 13, 2017 at 22:14

The government of Turkey. Though this is hotly contested, there is some direct evidence and much circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Turkish government has at the very least facilitated/mediated the purchase of oil from IS (if not actually buying oil itself).

Oil tankers - illustration enter image description here

The basic circumstantial evidence:

  • The oil exports can (technically) happen by land, sea, or air.
  • They're not happening by air: IS has no air force or civilian air fleet; and this would very likely have been subverted; and it's probably not even economically viable at all.
  • They're not happening by sea: IS territories in Iraq and Syria are land-locked. (Syria isn't; and Iraq isn't - but coastal areas have been held by the respective regimes and never by IS).
  • The forces/terriories surrounding IS lands with oil in them, are: Turkey (now through Turkish-backed Syrian Islamist rebels, but until the Turkish invasion last year it was Turkey proper), Rojava (Kurds/SDF, northern Syria), Kurdish Regional Government (northern Iraq), the Iraqi state regime, the Syrian state regime, non-IS Islamist rebels (Idlib area, Joulan area, near Jordanian border), Jordan. Israel borders an IS-controlled area directly but it's a small enclave so no oil could through there except through non-IS Islamist rebel territory before.
  • It's extremely unlikely the non-IS and IS Islamists would cooperate clandestinely in oil trade without this being found out, and when they're so much at odds otherwise. In fact, it's highly unlikely they would cooperate at all.
  • No evidence of significant collusion of any of the above-mentioned forces/states, except Turkey, with IS or IS personnel in those areas. (this is a weak point since I've not extensively looked for such evidence.)
  • Lots of news stories over the past several years on IS activity in Turkey, people and fighters crossing the Turkish border back and forth, IS recruitment in other countries inviting people to meet in Turkey etc.
  • A relatively authoritarian regime in Turkey which has acted brutally against civilians in its own territory with significant military presence in Eastern Turkey. So - relatively easy to carry out secret activities without public oversight or unusual vehicle and troop movements.
  • No way you could send oil tankers over a state border regularly without the state allowing this to happen. Once or twice - maybe you got away with it; a barrel here or there - possible to smuggle I guess, but that does not allow for a real flow of oil. It must be tankers, wherever the oil goes.
  • Iraq has its own oil sources (the KRG as well), so they wouldn't need to rely on IS oil. Syria - not sure about domestic oil production, certainly with the war, but they definitely have easy access to the Mediterranean.

So, circumstantially, which would be the most likely culprit? Turkey.

Now, as for proper evidence, I'm quoting from this blog post:

The Guardian reported:

US special forces raided the compound of an Islamic State leader in eastern Syria in May... The target ... was an Isis official responsible for oil smuggling, named Abu Sayyaf. He was almost unheard of outside the upper echelons of the terror group, but he was well known to Turkey. From mid-2013, the Tunisian fighter had been responsible for smuggling oil from Syria’s eastern fields, which the group had by then commandeered. Black market oil quickly became the main driver of Isis revenues – and Turkish buyers were its main clients.

... In the wake of the raid that killed Abu Sayyaf, suspicions of an undeclared alliance have hardened. One senior western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking Isis members was now “undeniable”.

Al-Monitor quoted a member of the Turkish opposition party CHP (the secularist/nationalists/militarists/Kemalists):

Opposition MP says ISIS is selling oil in Turkey

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been selling smuggled Syrian oil in Turkey worth $800 million, according to Ali Ediboglu, a lawmaker for the border province of Hatay from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The Kurdish Daily News, quoting ANF news, reported

Sadik Al Hiseni, the head of the security committee in the city of Diyala in Iraq, says they have arrested several Turkish tankers trying to take ISIS oil out of the province of Salahuddin.

And you can find lots and lots more by web-searching.

Edit - July 2017: Turkey no longer has any border with the Islamic State, So obviously no sales since the cut-off; but the sales may well have ended before that. Probably even sometime before the Turkish invasion of North Syria.

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    "oil exports can happen by (...) air." - Really? Refined oil product distribution, yes (military, remote areas). Exports of unprocessed oil? I'm extremely skeptical. Jul 27, 2017 at 14:11
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    @DenisdeBernardy: I meant, technically. You could theoretically fly barrols of unprocessed oil, or larger tanks, abroad. Of course I immediately indicate that is not effectively possible at least in this case.
    – einpoklum
    Jul 27, 2017 at 14:38

Another major buyer is Israel and it makes sense too. It shares border with Syria so transfer of barrels is easy. It has booming economy and industries which means they have capacity to purchase it. All other surrounding countries are troubled except Turkey which has already been accused of buying oil from them.


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    Just as commented on the other answer: Do you have any sources to back up your claim?
    – Philipp
    Jun 1, 2017 at 11:24
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    Source is untrustworthy, flagged answer for removal: fakenewschecker.com/fake-news-source/american-herald-tribune Jun 1, 2017 at 12:27
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    @newenglander If I just go by that description of the source you've linked, I'd merely consider it to be a "low quality" source, but not low quality enough to delete the answer as "very low quality" Jun 1, 2017 at 17:25
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    Maybe you want to have a look at the help page explaining how to write a good answer?
    – jjdb
    Jun 1, 2017 at 17:39
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    Your source says nothing about direct transfer of oil barrels across the Israelian-Syrian border, but rather it mentions a transfer over the well-known route Silop-Ceyhan. Maybe you should read your source before posting an answer.
    – jjdb
    Jun 1, 2017 at 17:55

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