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ISIS Makes Millions From The Sale Of Oil In War-Torn Syria And Iraq


One of the top issues facing the presidential candidates is the fight against the group known as ISIS. And we've heard a lot about how ISIS makes millions of dollars from the sale of oil in the territory that it controls in northern Syria and northern Iraq. But how exactly does that work? A new investigation in the Financial Times has some answers. Erika Solomon is one of three journalists who wrote this report, and she is with us now from our studio in Washington. Erika thanks for doing this today.

ERIKA SOLOMON: Thanks for having me, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So walk us through this process. Let's start, say, in an oil field in northeastern Syria, you know - used to be owned by the Syrian government. It was part of the state-owned oil operation. How does it work now? How does oil get out of that field and onto the market?

SOLOMON: What ISIS has done is managed to corner control of the extraction process, which is smart because they can't get bombed there. It would cause a natural disaster. So they extract the oil, and then they immediately sell it to local traders - any average person who can buy a truck that they can fill with a tank of oil.

MCEVERS: So who are these traders?

SOLOMON: Anybody really. If you can imagine living in what is essentially a war zone, people are looking for ways to make money. And this is a very surefire way to have some profit.

MCEVERS: And so the oil gets refined, and then where does it go after that?

SOLOMON: Then it goes everywhere. What a lot of people think is it goes to, say, Turkey or to the Syrian regime; there are some sort of secret deals. That may happen, but what we found was that most of it is actually just normal people like you and me living in the parts of Syria and Iraq that either ISIS controls or even, strangely, its own enemies. So if you live in other parts of Syria that are controlled by the opposition fighting the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, you actually have to buy oil from ISIS. Your hospitals, your tractors, everything that makes your life run is fueled by ISIS oil.

MCEVERS: So a lot of this oil stays inside Syria and Iraq and is bought by regular people on these markets.


MCEVERS: But some of it is also smuggled out of Syria. And how does that work, and where does it end up?

SOLOMON: Again, this is another part that I found very interesting because we were expecting to find some sort of conspiracies of ISIS militants working some trade routes to get the oil out. And again, this may happen, but what we also found was that, again, you see normal people doing this.

So the oil makes it out of ISIS's territory, particularly to the rebel regions in northwestern Syria, and then they take the fuel - the refined fuel - and they find every way you can think of to get in over the border to Turkey. They've even made pipelines, and they kind of use these hand pumps to pump it in a tube under the border. Some people carry it on boats over a river that runs along parts of the border or mules. But one thing about this is that it's really decreased not, again, because of the effectiveness of the campaign to fight ISIS but actually because oil prices are so low.

MCEVERS: Why hasn't the U.S. and its allies been able to stop this from happening, to stop this sale of ISIS oil?

SOLOMON: I think two reasons. One is simply because it's so embedded now in the community that it's controlling. And that's a big problem because the coalition, especially the United States, have said they don't want to make past mistakes of turning the population against them. And so they're reluctant to bomb what are essentially civilian targets.

The other problem is how much do you pressure your allies like Turkey and Iraq to stop things like smuggling? Can you imagine how much Turkey and Iraq have one their hands trying to fight this organization? There's only so much you can demand. They do put pressure on them, and the Turks really do try. But you have an entire population of people who see this as a great way of making money in desperate conditions. So it's a really difficult situation.

MCEVERS: Erika Solomon is the Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times. Erika, thank you so much.

SOLOMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.