Satellites Reveal Just How Terrible ISIS Is At Managing Its Oil Fields

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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Islamic State oil production plummeted between 2014 to 2016, according to a recent World Bank report, declining from 56,000 barrels per day to 16,000 barrels per day based on a satellite-derived analysis of 42 ISIS-controlled oil sites in Syria and Iraq.

“Our study shows that ISIS has been highly ineffective in managing its oil fields, limiting its revenue from these valuable assets and forcing it to fall back on taxation and extortion for funding,” study co-author Jacob Shapiro wrote in Axios on Monday.

It’s not an easy task.

ISIS doesn’t publicly report its oil production figures, nor does it disclose what it sells oil for, so experts used satellites to monitor methane flaring over Islamic State territory. The radiant heat from flaring gives at least some insight into oil production numbers.

The only problem is that flaring doesn’t tell researchers what price ISIS sells its oil. ISIS has to sell its oil at a discounted price on the black market — or else buyers would simply buy from legal markets.

Overall, ISIS hasn’t done very well managing its oil assets due to a lack of expertise in keeping production going and also because U.S.-backed coalition forces have retaken most of the terror state’s territory.

“This data can also help to shape plans for rebuilding area liberated from ISIS control by setting priorities for needing repairs and providing revenue projections for local economies,” Shapiro wrote of recent work on ISIS oil production.

Oil production declines also support arguments that ISIS is becoming less reliant on oil and more reliant on extortion, taxes and other means of generating revenue to fund its holy war.

Coalition forces have retaken Mosul and Raqqa in recent months, forcing ISIS back from major urban centers and confining militants to the sparsely populated Syria-Iraq border. Losing key Kurdish territory, for example, cost ISIS key oil fields in the region.

Shapiro  and his co-authors noted the example of the Ajil oil field southwest of Kirkuk: “ISIS took control of this area in 2014 and continued oil production through January 2015,” but “[p]roduction stopped until March 2015, when the field was set on fire by the group to counter an attack by Iraqi forces.”


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