Iraqi security forces and allied Popular Mobilization Forces fire rockets at IS positions at an oilfield outside Beiji, north of Baghdad.


THE West has stepped up bombing of Islamic State’s oilfields, implementing trade sanctions and cutting off financiers in an effort to bring down the wealthiest terrorist group of all time.

But raiding the extremists’ riches is going to be much harder than that. Targeting its stolen energy resources may look like a win, but the group’s millions come mainly from shadowy revenue streams that are far harder to undermine.


IS makes $500 million a year from oilfields captured from Syrian government, exporting it to other countries and even selling it back to President Bashar al-Assad, according to the Treasury. “The oilfields are not to be sneezed at,” Clive Walker, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Leeds in the UK told

“There’s been a lot of alleged illegal trade with adjacent countries, including Turkey.

“But if you went out and stopped all that, there would still be problems.”

A complete stop to oil trading is hardly just around the corner. US defence department spokesman Colonel Steve Warren admitted earlier this month that IS were repairing their infrastructure after strikes within just three days.

The New York Times estimated IS made $1.2 billion in 2014, but this is thought to have been underestimated because it was based on oil revenue. In January, thejihadists put their 2015 budget at $2 billion, with an expected surplus of $250 million, a religious leader in Mosul told al-Araby. The money was reportedly going towards wages for fighters and money for bereaved families, as well as the war effort.

But taking out oilfields isn’t really hitting IS where it hurts.

But taking out oilfields isn’t really hitting IS where it hurts.


The Islamic State’s other sources of income collectively make more for the group than oil, and they are much harder to crack down upon. First, there’s lucrativeextortion and taxation of businesses and households within their territory, which theNYT believes earned them around $600 million in 2014.

Then there’s the cash stolen from the vaults of state-run banks they have seized in Iraq, which is believed to add up to around $500 million. They have also stolen goods and artefacts, particularly precious archaeological relics, in some cases destroying historic sites and making sure their items are worth even more.

Agriculture is “the least appreciated resource” in the terrorists’ hands, according toBloomberg Businessweek. It estimates that the group has stolen $200 million in wheat from Iraqi silos and taken control of fields that could yield crops worth a further $200 million each year, even if sold at reduced black market rates.

Ransoms from kidnappings also account for tens of thousands of dollars.


Professor Walker says another reason the attacks on the militant organisation’s coffers may not work is because their expenditure does not appear to be very high.

“I don’t think money is a problem,” said Prof Walker, who is in the country attending Flinders University’s Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology (ANZSOC) conference.

“They acquired a lot of their weaponry from the Iraqi Army. It didn’t cost them anything, really. Terrorist fighters from [the West] often take cash with them, they don’t expect pay, they’re fighting for the glory and the honour. I’m not sure they are soldiers in the normal way, expecting a wage.

“There have been a number of cases where we’ve managed to detect them for financial reasons, the accompaniment to their travel plans.”

In the UK, wannabe jihadists have been prosecuted for trying to take thousands of dollars to the Middle East. Last year, a student was caught trying to board a flight from Heathrow to Istanbul with $33,424 in euros stuffed in her underwear. She had been tricked into being a mule by a schoolfriend who said it was for a house deposit, when it was in fact for her IS fighter husband in Syria.

“People have been found using Western union or one of the few courier and money transfer services still open in the country. Calls to relatives asking them to send money or clean underwear have been detected.”

IS publications, including Daqib magazine, claim their land is like paradise, with state-of-the-art hospitals and social services, but accounts from Western members suggest conditions are extremely basic. Ultimately, this is a frugal and unscrupulous outfit that doesn’t need to spend much to produce devastating results.

Western jihadists tend to take their own money to Syria, and want glory rather than wages. Picture: Geoff Chambers

Western jihadists tend to take their own money to Syria, and want glory rather than wages. Picture: Geoff ChambersSource:Facebook


Despite the seemingly impenetrable fortress the extremists have built, Prof Walker says it still makes sense for the West to try to dismantle its power in the Middle East. Trade sanctions, air strikes on oil trucks and the influence of international banks may have a low impact, but they do disrupt operations.

“I don’t think it’s going to achieve quick results, but I certainly can’t see why you wouldn’t take actions. It could not only affect IS but is an important way of gathering intelligence in the region — who’s helping, whether it’s Turkey or Iraq. It’s important to gain information and try to convince people their best interest is not in being allied with IS, better governments might be available. That is very utopian of course.”

So hard as it may be to disrupt IS finances, the US will keep trying. This week, it sanctioned a businessman it said was a middleman for oil sales between IS and the Syrian government, plus three others, and it is planning new air strikes capable of bringing down oil machinery for a year at a time.

The West will keep trying to hit the terrorists wherever it hurts, and that includes in the pocket.


By Adam