ISIS isn't about to file for bankruptcy -- but its balance sheet is hurting
The anti-ISIS coalition has targeted the group's financial experts
But ISIS still has one major customer for oil and gas: the Syrian regime
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in March. Learn how America’s intelligence network tracked and killed the godfather of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on CNN’s “Declassified,” Sunday, July 3, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Outside the deserted town of al Hawl in northern Syria, a network of pipes converges on a plant with three oil storage tanks.
It’s a small facility, but for more than a year it helped ISIS’ war economy, dispensing crude to middlemen willing to risk being bombed to trade it.
ISIS fighters were forced to abandon al Hawl in November. They scrawled graffiti on the tanks and rigged booby-traps. They also left behind a bomb factory and a source of taxation: al Hawl had 3,000 inhabitants.
Its retreat from al Hawl is one small example of a growing problem for the “caliphate.” Its revenues are declining as its control over populations and resources shrink.
In 2015, ISIS lost about 40% of the area it held in Iraq, as well as parts of northeastern Syria that have both good farmland and oil. Airstrikes on the oil infrastructure it controlled have further diminished the balance sheet. Some of its senior financial officials have been killed. Trading through Turkey has become much more difficult. Its cash depots have been bombed.
ISIS isn’t about to file for bankruptcy – but its balance sheet is hurting.
How come ISIS got so rich so quick?
A terror group that claims to be a state, or a “caliphate,” needs a lot of money, especially when – according to most estimates – some 4 to 5 million people live under its control.
ISIS did have a lot of money. Even before it went on its land-grab in 2014 it probably had assets worth $875 million, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. Much of that came through extortion.
It also enjoyed windfall profits in the expansionary days of 2014. These included, according to U.S. estimates, between $500 million and $1 billion seized from Iraqi bank vaults. The branch of the Central Bank in Mosul alone was said to contain more than $400 million.
It also grabbed thousands of tons of military equipment left behind by fleeing Iraqi security forces, and oil wells and refineries.
The cash was rolling in. Speaking in October 2014, senior U.S. Treasury official David S. Cohen said ISIS “has amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace.”
Last year, the group captured valuable phosphate deposits near Palmyra in Syria, to add to those parts of Anbar province in Iraq which are rich in the material. Phosphates are an important ingredient in fertilizer.
A conservative estimate would be that ISIS’ cash pile and revenues amounted to at least $1.5 billion a year ago. But ISIS was also spending money – fast.
Of course, ISIS doesn’t publish accounts, so it’s tough to estimate its spending. The Iraqi government budgeted $2 billion in 2014 for the provinces which ISIS then seized. The terror group is unlikely to be spending anything like that.
Even so, ISIS still has to provide basic social services, health care, water and electricity, and maintain roads and sewage systems. It has to pay wages, even more so when the Iraqi government decided last September not to continue paying civil servants in areas under ISIS control, a loss estimated at some $170 million a month to the local economy.
What about oil?
In late 2014, ISIS-controlled oil refineries were producing about 50,000 barrels a day, worth an estimated $500 million annually. Rather than handle the sales itself, ISIS tapped into existing smuggling networks which sold some of that oil into Turkey.
The margins were slim because there were many parties involved. Still, it was a lucrative trade.
But hasn’t oil crashed?
Yes, it has, but that’s not ISIS’ biggest problem. Last autumn, the anti-ISIS coalition decided to go after the terror group’s oil infrastructure with an operation called Tidal Wave II. It began targeting oil trucks, gas-oil separation plants and oil collection points.
On one day alone last November, according to a coalition estimate, 283 oil tankers were hit near Deir Ezzour in Syria, home to about two-thirds of ISIS’ oil production. Mobile refineries have also been targeted, making it more expensive for ISIS to obtain refined products. The spare parts and expertise needed to repair infrastructure were hard to come by.
It’s difficult to estimate current production from ISIS-controlled fields. Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force in Baghdad, says it may have fallen to about 34,000 barrels a day. Another source tells CNN that at times it has fallen below 20,000 barrels per day – a drop of 60%.
Sources in northern Syria say the price per barrel in places like Hasakah – outside ISIS control – is about $20, while in ISIS-held territory it has stayed above $40. That price likely reflects shortages. There are many reports of fuel rationing, and opposition activists say the price of gas in Raqqa has risen 25%. The Financial Times reported in February that ISIS has cut its fleet of cars in Deir Ezzour from 60 to 10.
Who else is buying oil?
ISIS still has one major customer for the oil and gas it has appropriated: the Syrian regime. According to one analyst, the regime may be buying up to 20,000 barrels per day from ISIS.
But isn’t ISIS fighting against the Syrian regime?
“The two are trying to slaughter each other and they are still engaged in millions and millions of dollars of trade,” says Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Treasury.
ISIS’ seizure of the Palmyra area in May last year included two gas fields and a pumping station known as T3. That pushed the Syrian regime into a bargain with ISIS: “Continued flow of gas from eastern fields to regime power plants in return for payment or electricity supply,” according to Yezid Sayigh, a senior research associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And what about taxes?
As it rampaged through Iraq and much of northern Syria in 2014, ISIS seized huge amounts of personal property. In Mosul it simply appropriated and resold the homes of those who fled and seized their bank accounts. It may also have made $100 million from the sale of antiquities, according to Iraqi officials.
And it made obscene sums from ransom payments and the sale of slaves, especially young Yazidi women. In 2014, ISIS made about $20 million from ransom payments, the U.S. Treasury estimates.
According to several studies, revenues from what is essentially looting and pillage probably made up 40% of the group’s income. But you can only confiscate a property, rob a bank or sell a hostage once.
ISIS also levies heavy and various taxes on the populations under its control. Its zakat tax takes about 10% of people’s income and it’s been known to take about a tenth of the amount whenever someone withdraws cash from a bank account. There are fees for using water, electricity and cell phone services.
Ludovico Carlino, a senior analyst at IHS/Janes, says: “They charge a 20% tax on all services.”