Turkey’s approach and policies towards the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State and sometimes referred to as ISIL, IS and Daesh), one of history’s most dreaded and violent terrorist groups, have been under the spotlight. The Turkish government has been accused time and again of conniving, covertly providing financial and/or military support or at least tolerating ISIS. Official statements, documents, witness testimonies, relevant research and reporting from the field by well-regarded institutions and media organs laid bare the naked truth that without the Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the clientele for ISIS oil would be limited and hence the revenue it generated to fuel the conflict would have been less.
The most damning revelations of the Erdoğan government and the ISIS oil business came from Russia, which is now working with Turkey in neutralizing the jihadist threat in Syria’s north. After a Russian warplane was shot down on the Turkish-Syrian border by a Turkish F-16 on November 24, 2015, Moscow broadcast these claims at the highest pitch possible. Russian President Vladimir Putin directly accused Turkey, particularly Turkish President Erdoğan and his family, of having commercial ties with ISIS and helping sell its oil.
This allegation was not new nor was it an empty one. The Erdoğan regime’s leniency towards ISIS, especially in the form of loose border controls for the passage of jihadists to join ISIS from around the world, was already generating huge criticism. Russian claims that the Turkish Islamist autocrat was aiding and abetting ISIS terrorism by facilitating the oil trade through a network of cronies, involving in particular some family members, were new. And they were very serious. As expected, these assertions stirred significant reaction and sparked a flow of information from the field that provided more details concerning ISIS’s oil business.
One cannot help but wonder if the Russian claim that Erdoğan was the number-one protector of ISIS was ever grounded in fact or even cogent in the first place. If so, why Russia has simply abandoned its tantrums and started pretending that Turkey had always been the flag bearer of the great battle against terrorism. Then what was Vladimir Putin’s motive when he all of a sudden began lambasting Turkey and its ruling elite? How come the two states, which were at each other’s throat, started watching each other’s back against the US? Perhaps all these seemingly cozy ties between Putin and Erdoğan were nothing but a facade that benefited both for tactical purposes in the short run, when both leaders in fact harbor a deep mistrust of each other.
Turkey’s shifting of its historic axis from its traditional transatlantic allies to the authoritarian Eurasia worked for Erdoğan, who wants to rule his 80-million-strong nation with the iron grip of an authoritarian even if that means going against Turkey’s national security requirements, which need Western backing against the Russian bear. For Putin, Erdoğan’s Turkey gave him leverage to bargain with the US in the face of the expanding NATO alliance, applying economic and financial pressure. In any case, Erdoğan’s brief challenge of Russia let out the open secret of how Turkey allowed the ISIS oil business to thrive.
PROVOKING A BEAR
The downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M jet by a Turkish F-16 marked a distinct turning point that would leave a huge impact on not only the course of Russo-Turkish relations but also the multi-faceted, violent standoff in Syria. After their jet was shot down and the pilot was murdered,Russia was in a towering rage. Without spending much time on the details of the clash at the border, the Russian side all of a sudden launched a series of accusations of Turkey’s aiding and abetting of ISIS terrorists and actively engaging in and facilitating their oil trade.
Putin said, “We have every reason to think that the decision to shoot down our plane was dictated by the desire to protect the oil supply lines to Turkish territory.” He continued his harsh remarks, clearly identifying Turkey as ISIS’s henchman: “This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism. Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives. But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists.”
The Russian leader went on to say: “IS has big money, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, from selling oil. In addition they are protected by the military of an entire nation. One can understand why they are acting so boldly and blatantly. Why they kill people in such atrocious ways. Why they commit terrorist acts across the world, including in the heart of Europe.” He promised that his government would not take the incident lightly: “We have always treated Turkey as not only a close neighbor, but also as a friendly nation. I don’t know who has an interest in what happened today, but we certainly don’t.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev jumped on the bandwagon after his leader and said: “Turkey’s actions are de facto protection of the Islamic State. … This is no surprise, considering the information we have about the direct financial interest of some Turkish officials relating to the supply of oil products refined by plants controlled by ISIS.”
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov took the allegations a step further and pointed at Turkey as he was addressing the press in Moscow. “According to the information we’ve received, the senior political leadership of the country — President Erdoğan and his family — are involved in this criminal business. Maybe I’m being too blunt, but one can only entrust control over this thieving business to one’s closest associates. In the West, no one has asked questions about the fact that the Turkish president’s son heads one of the biggest energy companies, or that his son-in-law has been appointed energy minister. What a marvelous family business!” The high-ranking politician said Russia had evidence to prove that Erdoğan and his family personally benefitted from the oil trade with ISIS.
Antonov said oil in industrial quantities was continuously transported along “rolling pipelines,” referring to the kilometers-long queues of tanker trucks. “The cynicism of the Turkish leadership knows no limits. Look what they’re doing. They went into someone else’s country, they are robbing it without compunction,” he said.
Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy as well as Director of the National Defense Management Center Gen. Mikhail Mezentse attended the same press conference. Rudskoy detailed how this “stolen oil” was transported into Turkey. According to the information he offered, there were basically three ways, the first of which led to the Batman oil refinery in the east; the second to the seaport city of İskenderun through Aleppo; and the third to the Zakho region in northern Iraq. Every day 8,000 tankers and 2,000 barrels entered Turkey for delivery to a military-controlled area in Silopi.
Gen. Rudskoy didn’t mince words when he mentioned that a company belonging to Erdoğan’s son was directly involved in this shady and dirty business. “According to our reliable intelligence data, Turkey has been carrying out such operations for a long period and on a regular basis. And most importantly, it does not plan to stop them,” he said.
MIXED SIGNALS FROM THE US
In the face of the Russian allegations, the US sent mixed signals on the ties between the ISIS oil trade and Turkey. While defending the Erdoğan government in a spirit of solidarity against the barrage of accusations leveled by Russia, US officials did not deny that some of the ISIS oil flowed to Turkey. They simply kept quiet on how such ISIS oil could go to Turkey without a permissive political environment.
“We frankly see no evidence, none, to support such an accusation,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on the Russian claims, adding that the only information they had concerning the issue was that ISIS was selling oil at the wellheads to middlemen, who were smuggling some of this oil into Turkey. He said that “there is no Turkish government complicity in some operation to buy illegal oil from the Islamic State. We just don’t believe that to be true in any way, shape or form.” US President Barack Obama also stood by Erdoğan, saying although ISIS recruits were still able to cross the Turkish border and that the terrorist group was still selling its oil through gaps in that border, Turkey’s progress in sealing its border with Syria must also be noted. Col. Steve Warren, the coalition spokesman in Baghdad, would agree, saying, “the Turks have been great partners” in fighting the Islamic State militants.
“The amount of oil being smuggled is extremely low and has decreased over time and is of no significance from a volume perspective — both volume of oil and volume of revenue,” said Amos Hochstein, US special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs.
A detailed account from the US side came from Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence with the Treasury. Speaking to an audience during a public event at Chatham House, he claimed that ISIS had reaped the hefty amount of $500 million from oil sales to the Syrian government as well as to Turkey. He stated an estimated monthly figure of $40 million pouring into ISIS’s coffers through the oil trade. Szubin was well aware that his claim was mind-boggling as he said both the Syrian regime and ISIS “are trying to slaughter each other, and they are still engaged in millions and millions of dollars of trade.”
There is a clear indication of this finding, the calculated possible revenue from the oil trade. If the actual number is really as low as $40 million a month, which means that Turkey’s share would be even less, the real motive for Erdoğan is not the benefit that would accrue from the trade but rather to allow jihadists to sustain their campaign through the income they generated from the smuggling of oil to Turkey by means of brokers. Szubin was probably hoping to make this point clear when he said: “It’s not just a financial issue — it is about foreign terrorist flows, it’s about weapons and it’s about financing. I think securing that border would pay major dividends in terms of intensifying the pressure and also reducing the threat.” The US official underlined that closing the Turkish border to flows was a key component and called on the Turks “to do more in that respect.”
Szubin asserted that the Syrian government had a “far greater” share in ISIS’s oil sales, while ISIS was using a lesser amount of oil for its own needs. The Kurds were ISIS’s third best customer when the two were not butchering each other, according to him, and only the remainder was going to Turkey. “Our sense is that ISIS is taking its profits basically at the wellhead and so while you do have ISIS oil ending up in a variety of different places, that’s not really the pressure we want when it comes to stemming the flow of funding — it really comes down to taking down their infrastructure,” he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry on its Facebook page issued a statement on December 5, 2015 challenging the US denial of images of trucks crossing the Turkish border. The statement said, “If the American colleagues are not satisfied with those ones, they should watch videos gained by their own UAVs.” The Defense Ministry’s tone was sarcastic. The words of the American officials “concerning impossibility to register the delivery of terrorists’ illegal oil products, are not just a ruse. It ‘smells’ as a real patronage,” the statement read.
“The irony of the Russians raising this concern is that there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that the largest consumer of ISIS oil is actually Bashar al-Assad and his regime, a regime that only remains in place because it is being propped up by the Russians,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
An interesting point that requires attention was that US Vice President Joe Biden had leveled similar accusations against Turkey a couple of months before the jet incident. He said in a speech at the Harvard Kennedy School on October 2, 2014 that Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were supporting extremist factions in Syria. “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” But he would soon dial back these words after facing harsh reactions from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. His spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, said, “The Vice President apologized for any implication that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIS or other violent extremists in Syria.”
In addition to the US, several other voices were raised in support of Erdoğan. Presenting the reaction from Europe, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Vice-President Federica Mogherini on behalf of the European Commission said she knew of no evidence to support allegations that Turkey was benefiting financially from trading and smuggling ISIS oil.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also refuted the Russian allegations. Şerko Cevdet, head of the KRG energy commission, was quoted by the Turkish state-owned Anadolu news agency as saying: “The KRG exports its oil via pipelines and tankers to Turkey for sale to buyers around the world. The Russian satellite images showed these tankers.” Nobody really heeded the KRG’s denial as it was already one of the sides targeted by the accusations.
Turkey’s eastern and southern neighbors also voiced their own criticism of the Erdoğan government and accused Turkey of helping ISIS’s oil smuggling business. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on December 7 said most of the oil that ISIS was stealing from Iraq and Syria was being smuggled and sold via Turkey.
Iran’s Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezayee said: “Iranian military advisors in Syria have taken photos and filmed all the routes used by ISIS’s oil tankers to Turkey; these documents can be published. If the Turkish government is not aware of ISIS’s oil sales in their country, we can provide it with such intelligence.”
A similar, even harsher, denunciation came from Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, who told RIA Novosti that President Erdoğan had personally ordered the shooting down of the Russian jet in reprisal for Russian airstrikes on ISIS’s oil production facilities in order to cripple the shady trade that was managed by his son, Bilal Erdoğan.
The three above-mentioned people were from states that had long aligned themselves with Russia, exactly the opposite of Turkey and the US in almost all regional and global major political disputes. So their reactions are understandable. US-ally Israel, on the other hand, deviated from the US rhetoric, possibly due to the deep-rooted enmity and distrust of Turkey. In January 2016 Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon claimed ISIS had “enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long period of time.” Israel itself faced the same accusations by the Arab media, though.
Czech President Milos Zeman harshly lambasted Turkey as a de facto ally of ISIS, too, when responding to a question concerning Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria. This was in March 2019, at a time when even Russia, the original instigator of the claim, is now Turkey’s best friend. Zeman said Turkey’s aid for ISIS basically took the form of selling its oil and providing logistical support when the group still held large swathes of land.
REPORTING FROM THE FIELD
Not long after the official Russian discourse about the Turkey-ISIS connections had crystallized, the Russian media started churning out stories to support the claims asserted by the top echelons of the Russian state. A half-hour documentary shot in the newly liberated Syrian town of Al-Shadadi in the Al-Hasakah Governorate by Russia Today (RT) was one such work. Titled “In the Name of the Profit,” the documentary mainly featured interviews with a number of fighters from the US-backed Kurdish militias battling ISIS as well as with captive ISIS terrorists. RT presented the documentary with these words: “Besides collecting irrefutable proof of quite cozy relations between ISIS and Turkey, RT managed [to] capture the mood of the populace who have lived and worked under ISIS yoke for months.”
Al-Shadadi is important since it is located in one of the most prolific areas of oil production in Syria. The documentary’s main effort seems to be to substantiate links between ISIS and the Turkish government. It was important in the sense that the Kurdish forces were in the company of the US, which provided unwavering backing to Turkey against the Russian allegations. Yet they were more than eager to offer evidence for the claims that Turkey was actually helping ISIS through facilitating its oil trade, paving the way for militant infiltrations or providing arms.
That said, the documentary actually displayed some seemingly convincing documents. Among the evidence found by the RT journalists in the liberated town were the passports of slain ISIS terrorists who had flocked to Syria from various parts of the world. All the passports seized by People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters who ousted ISIS forces from the town have Turkish border stamps on them. For instance, a passport ostensibly belonging to a Kazakh youth shows an entry stamp at Sabiha Gökçen Airport on September 2012 and a departure stamp from the Habur border gate with Iraq four days later, with a return to Turkey through Habur after five months. Half a dozen such passports shown in the documentary have Turkish border stamps on them with dates ranging from late 2012 to early 2013.
A captured ISIS militant named Mahmut from the Turkish province of Adıyaman interviewed in the documentary claimed that Turkey was allowing the passage of militants to backhandedly create a force against their sworn enemy, the Kurds, who were also the enemies of ISIS. “Turkey says I don’t put my hand directly on this, but I can get rid of my nemesis with the hand of someone else,” Mahmut claimed. Asked which groups Turkey supported against the Kurds, the captured terrorist mentions Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham along with ISIS. The same person also claimed Turkish support for these groups originated from its desire to influence oil production and trade in the region. It must be underlined that those were the personal opinions of the person rather than facts.
Further evidence discovered by the Kurdish forces and shared with RT is a pile of invoices detailing the oil trade with the smugglers, such as the date, information on the truck drivers, the amount of oil in the barrels sold to middlemen, the price and total revenue, etc. Again, these documents must be treated with care since they prove the existence of oil shipments by truck rather than the direct involvement of the Turkish government.
A boy, seemingly no more than 13 years old called Malek, tells RT that he has been working at a makeshift refinery in his village ever since the occupation of their town. Speaking with a maturity far beyond his years, the boy said ISIS’s main motive was to get weapons from Turkey in return for oil. “They … go with the oil and come back with the guns. And so they go, back and forth, back and forth,” he said.
Some additional witnesses both from among the locals of the town and the captured terrorists also repeatedly underline the same thing: ISIS terrorists from Raqqa and Aleppo were coming to the town to collect oil and were telling the locals that the final delivery destination was Turkey.
An ISIS terrorist who identifies himself as Muhammed Ahmad Muhammed from Saudi Arabia says he used the Turkish route to join ISIS and that crossing the border was as easy as walking along a broad avenue. Another man claims the border was virtually nonexistent as ISIS had practically erased it.
A mere documentary broadcast by a Russian media outlet that has the notoriety of a propaganda tool is naturally not perfectly convincing and plausible proof of Turkey’s collusion with the most horrific terrorist organization of the recent past. However, it must be noted that the passports with stamps by Turkish border control officers substantiated the widely expressed claim that Turkey was intentionally overlooking the accumulation of extremists in Syria joining the ranks of ISIS.
ISIS’S TURKEY AMBASSADOR
A more recent and more serious account came from Abu Mansour al Maghrebi, who was interviewed by the nonprofit media outlet Homeland Security Today in March 2019. This interview, originally a very long piece, deserves particular attention.
“My issue [duties] was our [Islamic State’s] relationship with Turkish intelligence. Actually, this started when I was working at the borders,” he said. His job was to handle the flow of foreign fighters from around the world via Turkey to join ISIS.
He later became an ISIS diplomat to conduct negotiations with the Turkish side. “There were some agreements and understandings between Turkish intelligence and ISIS emni [ISIS’s internal security organization] about the border gates, for the people who got injured,” Abu Mansour noted. “I had direct meeting with MIT the [Turkish National Intelligence Organization], many meetings with them.”
Asked who exactly in the Turkish government was meeting ISIS members, he said it would change depending on the subject matter of the deliberations but again counted representatives of the Turkish intelligence agency and the military as regular attendees at the meetings. “I passed the borders and they let me pass. [At the border] the Turks always sent me a car and I’m protected. A team of two to three people from our side were with me. I was in charge of our team most of the time.” Turkey’s benefit in maintaining contact with ISIS, for Abu Mansour, was to control its borders, especially with northern Syria, where Kurds were gaining a foothold that might evolve into a state. A Kurdish state is perceived as an existential threat by Turkey, and since the Syrian Kurds are mostly affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), their rising importance naturally alarmed Turkey so much so that it even normalized having contacts with ISIS. Besides, Turkey was also committed to reviving its influence and power in the regions that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. The New Ottomanism is indeed a living ideology of Erdoğan and his government.
As to the allegations that Turkey was providing weapons to ISIS, he dismissed them out of hand, saying ISIS was indeed meeting most of its arms needs from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which Turkey publicly supports in their fight against the al-Assad administration. These soldiers of the FSA would exchange their equipment even for a pack of cigarettes, said the ISIS member. They were also able to get guns and explosives from a variety of sources such as the mafias, the anti-Assad groups, and the like.
An extensive report titled “Taking Stock: The Arming of Islamic State” by Amnesty International reached conclusions corroborating Abu Mansour. The report stated that “a substantial proportion of IS’ current military arsenal comprises weapons and equipment looted, captured or illicitly traded from poorly secured Iraqi military stocks.” This said, however, the terrorist organization was also able to capture or buy Syrian military stocks as well as arms supplied to opposition groups in Syria by Turkey, the Gulf States and the US.
He confirmed the rumors that the Turkish state was allowing the passage of injured ISIS members to receive treatment, saying that actually there was not even any passport control at the gates and that the public hospitals were treating the wounded fighters free of charge. “When the person gets injured, there is hospital in Syria, and this hospital sends him in a car to the border. There were ambulances on the Turkish side waiting for this person. There were doctors who disliked Bashar. They treated our guys. The MIT [Turkish intel bureau] was made aware of every critical situation and they sent the ambulances to the border. There were also hospitals close to the border. Those who received critical care were treated there and they [the MIT] sent the others all over Turkey depending on their needs. There were very interested doctors, Syrian and Turkish, who wanted to help. So, if there were not facilities to serve them on the border, they would be sent further into Turkey for this.”
Regarding the sale of ISIS oil, Abu Mansour said they sent most of the oil to Turkey while also selling a much smaller amount to the al-Assad regime. Abu Mansour said no negotiations were needed on this issue with Turkish government officials as “this happened spontaneously.” His statement confirmed the other accounts thatput the blame on middlemen: “Oil that went to the Syrian government – some went by pipes, some by trucks. Oil sent by Dawlah [ISIS] to Turkey was arranged by traders from Turkey who came to take the oil with our permissions. Traders came from the Syrian side also.”
Journalist Fehim Taştekin of the Radikal newspaper on September 13, 2013published some photos of kilometers-long makeshift pipelines illegally pumping fuel from Syria to Turkey for as low as TL 1.25 per liter. This had gone on for three years without any reaction or interruption from state officials or security forces, he wrote. Lee Oughton, a longtime Iraq security expert and former global manager for executive protection at oil field service giant Halliburton, observed that ISIS oil was trafficked up through Iraq and into Turkey to be refined there and then delivered for Turkish domestic consumption or export.
Piotr Zalewski from Bloomberg wrote Turkish middlemen were actively engaging with ISIS in the oil trade, citing Turkish deputy from the main opposition party Mehmet AliEdiboğlu, who thought the main motive for such people to take the risk of doing business with the murderers was the prospect of making lucrative profits from the high market prices for fuel in the local Turkish market. Turks pay about 5 lira per liter of fuel, while it was possible to get it from ISIS for half this amount, all costs included. In other words, the local traders would be able to make up to 80 percent in profits in a short period of time, an attractive enough deal to ignore even the most serious dangers.
Either in defense of Turkey or in accusation, almost all statements mention middlemen. Abu Muhammed from al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria was one of these middlemen. After joining ISIS in 2014, he was later entrusted with the position of payroll clerk. “I used to get a bag full of US dollars each month, millions of dollars,” Abu Muhammed said. Oil was being carried in containers called “hoot,” which means “whale” in Arabic, due to their size. Abu Muhammed said Turkey was not only buying oil from ISIS but was also turning a blind eye to ISIS selling oil to others and even facilitated ISIS oil exports. “We never faced any problems from the Turkish gendarmerie… They actually always seemed fully cooperative with us,” he was quoted as saying.
In a recent study by the Rojava Center for Strategic Studies (NRLS), captured ISIS members all verified the existence of an active line of trade of oil, food, medicine and agricultural products. Oil was flowing to Turkey through the Al-Rai, Jarablus and Idlib regions, according to their statements.
Most of these terrorists were held captive in the prisons controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey designates as a terrorist organization and on which the US relied as the major land force to fight ISIS. İlyas Aydın (Abu Ubaidah al-Turkee), Savaş Yıldız (Abu Jihad al-Turkee), Abdul Aziz Munsi al-Anizi (Abu Omar al-Muhajir), Abu Mohammed al-Tunisi, Abu Sufyan al-Shamari and Alexanda Koteye, quoted in the study, all admitted the existence of strong commercial ties between ISIS and Turkey. The same İlyas Aydın spoke to BBC Turkish in August 2019. “There were so many oil engineers who had joined ISIS. The trade was mostly carried out by Syrian traders. Count just how many thousands of drivers were actively doing this job with their trucks, and you can understand how this wheel was spinning. They don’t have any ideology. But we held the wells. And it [the business] was earning us billions of dollars,” he was quoted as saying.
Although the particular emphasis of this work concerns the oil trade, let me parenthetically insert here the claims of the alleged trade of historic artifacts by the ISIS terrorists mentioned in the study. Abu Wafa al-Tunisi, İllyas Aydın, Abu Kasim, Hajji Mustafa al-Nahar, Abu Shiba al-Iraqi and Abu Turab al-Sahrawi all confessed to the smuggling of antiquities stolen from archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria. They said ISIS would sell them through brokers in Turkey and that the videos of the bombing of such sites were only exploited as fake propaganda.
Another confession came from ISIS official Sadam al-Gamal. In a televised interview with NAS Media, he said all crude oil extracted by ISIS was delivered to Turkey before the liberation of Tabqa and Raqqa, which had blocked the road between Aleppo and Idlib. Afterwards, the major destination became Homs, where ISIS and the Syrian regime exchanged oil in return for food, the ISIS member said.
US special operations forces captured a large amount of data when they raided the Deir Ezzor compound in eastern Syria in May 2015 that allegedly provided some tangible evidence for the Turkey-ISIS connection. The documents belonged to ISIS oil and gas official Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi (aka Abu Sayyaf), who was killed in the assault. A Western official familiar with the intelligence gathered would later tell The Guardian that it was no longer possible to deny the existence of direct engagement between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members. “There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there,” the official told The Guardian. “They are being analysed at the moment, but the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.” The paper quoted an unnamed ISIS terrorist who said Turkey would not attack ISIS “too hard” due to the oil dependence.
Razeek Radeek Maksimo, an Azerbaijani national and former senior ISIS commander, said: “Oil and gas obtained by the Islamic State was sold to Turkey and the Syrian regime. … [Oil] was sold to Turkey through the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Luay al-Khatteeb, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, also asserted that while some of the fuel was sold or distributed in Syria and Iraq, the rest was smuggled to southern Turkey. “It’s the only export market that Islamic State has.”
An academic study by George Kiourktsoglou and Dr. Alec D. Coutroubis from the University of Greenwich provided further clues of Turkey’s involvement in ISIS oil smuggling. It was like a piece of investigative journalism, written in a professional style. The authors suggested possible evidence of an illicit supply chain that ships ISIS crude from the port of Ceyhan in southeastern Turkey. The primary research pointed to a considerably active “shadow network of crude oil smugglers and traders” to transport ISIS’s oil from northeast Syria and northwest Iraq to Ceyhan. The authors guardedly wrote: “It seems that whenever the Islamic State is fighting in the vicinity of an area hosting oil assets, the exports from Ceyhan promptly spike. This may be attributed to an extra boost given to crude oil smuggling with the aim of immediately generating additional funds, badly needed for the supply of ammunition and military equipment. Unfortunately, in this case too, the authors cannot be categorical. If there is a certainty within the context of this paper and given the clear and present danger of terrorism, it is the urgent need for further research.” The study implies that the ISIS oil was added to the oil produced by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to be re-exported through the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline.
A report by Rystad Energy commissioned by the Norwegian government should also be regarded as another serious contribution to the debate over Turkey’s role in the terrorists’ oil trade network. The report determined that most of the oil sold by ISIS was directly sold to Turkey.
Joseph Fallon, Islamic extremism expert and UK Defense Forum research associate, told Fox News an ISIS network of “venture capitalists” was carrying out oil trade through smuggling routes across Syria, Iraq and Turkey, where they then bribe or threaten government officials to accept their oil and get paid market prices. He said when mixed with the oil in legitimate pipelines, it becomes untraceable. In other words, people would unknowingly use ISIS oil.
Although they vary in detail, all these stories, studies and witness statements share the same common point, which is Turkey’s active tolerance of ISIS’s rise and the facilitative and even sometimes active role in the oil trade, which served as a lifeline for ISIS. As to how this trade was being carried out, a few pieces of investigative journalism are worth remembering. At this point, we must also remember journalist Serena Shim, a US citizen of Lebanese origin, reporting from the field on the Syrian civil war. She was killed in a car accident in October 2014, a day after she said she had been threatened by the Turkish intelligence agency for reporting that ISIS and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters were crossing the Turkish border by truck. The circumstances surrounding her death are still a mystery.
Al-Araby al-Jadeed, a London-based outlet owned by Fadaat Media of Qatar, investigated and ran a detailed report on how ISIS oil reaches international markets, largely relying on the account of an anonymous colonel from the Iraqi Intelligence Services. Up to 100 tankers at a time carrying ISIS oil were shuttling between Nineveh and Zakho, a Kurdish city about 90 kilometers north of Mosul, just below the Turkish Iraqi border.
These trucks were met by oil smuggling mafias that were a mix of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Turks and Iranians. They competed with each other to purchase the oil. The competition was so fierce that assassinations among these competing gangs became routine. The highest bidder would pay between 10 and 25 percent of the oil’s value in US dollars as an advance payment.
Drivers who had permits to carry oil into Turkey took over these trucks, and the other drivers returned to the ISIS-controlled oil extraction points in empty trucks to repeat the cycle. Drivers that took the road to Turkey first stopped by rudimentary, privately owned refineries to process the crude oil. The processed oil was then transported into Turkey through the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing. Bribes were key to passage, the colonel said, adding that the trucks would reach the town of Silopi to be delivered to a shady person who went by the aliases of Dr. Farid and Uncle Farid.
Farid is an interesting figure with dual Greek-Israeli nationality, always protected by two strongly built bodyguards and never allowing himself to be photographed. Still, al-Araby had an identikit of this person based on descriptions by people who had seen him.
The New York Times wrote on September 13, 2014 that the Obama administration was trying to choke off the ISIS oil trade by means of various measures but was unable to convince Turkey to do more to curb the flow of this oil into its black market. The news relied on the statements of Western intelligence officials who tracked down oil shipments as they moved across Iraq and into Turkey’s southern border regions. American forces were reluctant to attack the tankers carrying this oil, although a senior administration official said it remained an option, the story noted. However, Turkey would hardly take any action against ISIS, this official argued. He thought that was because ISIS was holding 49 Turkish citizens, some of whom were diplomats, hostage in Mosul, and the terrorist group would retaliate by slaughtering them without hesitation in the event of an attack by Turkey.
However, many would argue that this was a consequence of the lax Turkish attitude towards ISIS and its tolerance from the beginning that had eventually led to this calamity. James Phillips, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, argued that Turkey did not crack down on ISIS’s oil network because it benefits from a lower price for oil and that some government officials might be capitalizing on the clandestine trade.
In October 2014, David Cohen, the US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury, summarized the actual picture in a speech : “According to our information, as of last month, ISIS was selling oil at substantially discounted prices to a variety of middlemen, including some from Turkey, who then transported the oil to be resold. It also appears that some of the oil emanating from territory where ISIS operates has been sold to Kurds in Iraq, and then resold into Turkey. And in a further indication of the Assad regime’s depravity, it seems the Syrian government has made an arrangement to purchase oil from ISIS. … we estimate that beginning in mid-June, ISIS has earned approximately $1 million a day from oil sales.”
Financial Times also ran a story titled “Isis Inc: how oil fuels the jihadi terrorists” on the same day as Cohen’s speech. The story, an extended version of which was also published as an e-book, basically assessed how ISIS had risen as a full-fledged conglomerate that employs workers, engineers and even professional managers to run its oil business. Like the US Treasury official Szubin, this article also estimated that the terrorist organization’s revenues were about $1.5 million daily, amounting to a monthly figure of around $40 million.
The story, which was published almost 40 days before the downing of the jet and the ensuing chaos in Russian-Turkish relations, did not name Turkey as one of the destinations of the ISIS oil but instead said a majority of the oil was consumed locally. Even the factions fighting against ISIS were buying oil from ISIS. “It’s a situation that makes you laugh and cry,” FT quoted a Syrian rebel commander in Aleppo as saying. “But we have no other choice, and we are a poor man’s revolution. Is anyone else offering to give us fuel?”
The FT article cited sources from the Syrian regime as well as the rebel groups as saying that both the Syrian forces and the insurgents, who are in a fight with ISIS,are reliant on the oil sold by ISIS. One oil trader said: “At any moment, the diesel can be cut. No diesel — Isis knows our life is completely dead.”
ISIS’S OIL BUSINESS IN FIGURES
There are no definite figures concerning the amount of cash inflow to ISIS coffers from its oil operations, but estimates have varied between $1.1 million and $3 million a day. As of October 2015 the total amount of production in Syria and Iraq was estimated to be between 34,000 bpd and 40,000 bpd daily. As Russia and the US intensified their airstrikes on ISIS-controlled zones, particularly targeting their oil producing facilities, production was almost halved. In 2016, parallel to the retreat of the terrorist group from its strongholds in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, it lost control of the oil wells. This precipitated the dissolution of ISIS and paved the way to its demise.
Probably the most scathing aspect of the Russian salvo about Turkey’s role in ISIS’s oil trade was its inclusion of Erdoğan’s family members, in particular son Bilal Erdoğan and son-in-law Berat Albayrak. Bilal’s rise to prominence in business from basically nothing and his wealth and connections had already garnered extensive criticism, but this time he was at the center of Russian autocrat Putin’s fierce bashing. Adding insult to injury, he was attacked head-on by Putin as a supporter of one of the most horrific terrorist groups in history.
An abundance of stories about Bilal Erdoğan and the Maltese shipping company BMZ (derived from the initials of its three partners: President Erdoğan’s son Bilal, his brother Mustafa and his sister’s husband Zeki) quickly flooded newspapers and websites. In a nutshell, almost all the articles repeated a Russian allegation with varying degrees of detail: A company named Powertrans, which the Russians claimed had shady connections with Albayrak, was transporting Kurdish oil commingled with crude from ISIS-controlled wells to Ceyhan, from where Bilal’s ships were delivering it to such markets as Israel, Italy and Japan. It should be noted that while not all these claims were true, they were also not entirely false. But mixing mere speculation with seemingly hard evidence unavoidably boosted the authenticity of the evidence, which some found to be a smoking gun.
Bilal Erdoğan rejected all these claims in a full-page interview with Corriera della Sera in December 2015 in Italy, where he had moved on the pretext of furthering his education after facing embezzlement charges in the December 17/25 corruption investigations in Turkey. He said BMZ was not a transportation company but operated largely in the construction business. This was not true. His company had ships, and these ships, until they were sold to SOCAR in 2017 in a secret deal, could be easily tracked as they were actively used in transportation. The Malta Files also showed that Bilal’s company owned a $25 million oil tanker after an Azeri billionaire bought it and gifted it to BMZ. BMZ’s ships were sold in 2017.
The Russian assertions brought Powertrans into the limelight, too. Although it was at the heart of the alleged oil smuggling scheme, not much was known about the company except that it was favored by President Erdoğan. The Turkish government banned any kind of foreign trade or transfer of oil or its byproducts into or out of Turkey with a bill on July 18, 2011, which was published on the Official Gazette on November 11, 2011 following the first cabinet meeting after the general election. Yet the same bill authorized the government to exempt a company if it believed this would be for the benefit of the nation. Relying on this authority, Erdoğan allowed Powertrans to transport northern Iraqi oil to Turkey without even holding a public tender.
Turkish hacker group RedHack’s release of numerous emails belonging to Berat Albayrak bore out the accusations of the Erdoğan family’s meddling in the ISIS oil smuggling scheme. The Turkish government almost immediately had a court order issued imposing a broadcast ban on the content of these emails.A number of them came from Powertrans managers, asking about internal affairs of the company, such as recruiting certain personnel or informing about some business developments. Although Albayrak, who was the energy minister by the time he received these emails, had no affiliation on paper with Powertrans, he was asked or notified about even minor details of the company’s operations. Just to give an example, in one of these emails a Çalık Holding director who also had no apparent relation to Powertrans wrote: “Powertrans demands that the commuter benefit be increased by TL 5 in line with the new ticket fees. I submit this for your approval. Yours respectfully.” Even a minor issue such as commuter benefits was forwarded for Albayrak’s approval. A side note: Albayrak was Çalık Holding’s CEO for six years between 2007 and 2013. This holding is known to have very close relations with President Erdoğan.
Powertrans has been enigmatic for many people interested in the convoluted web of relations in the Middle East energy arena. Its ownership structure is not clear. No one knows exactly how it was able to secure its position as the sole holder of the right to transport oil from the KRG region by land and why Erdoğan was particularly attentive to extending the duration of privileges granted to this company. The conditions under which the relationship between Powertrans and Genel Energy, which is the largest holder of reserves in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, began are vague. Besides all these points, however, Russia was clear that Powertrans played a crucial role in “laundering” ISIS oiland was connected to Erdoğan’s family.
The leaked emails seemed to provide some proof of this. They showed Albayrak was the person running this company behind the scenes. In another email dated August 9, 2015, Albayrak’s cousin Ekrem Keleş informed him about the company’s marketing issues in northern Iraq.
Similarly in another email exchange with his lawyer, Albayrak discusses the proper language to deny all ties with Powertrans. The lawyer suggests “My client no longer has any ties with Powertrans.” Albayrak responds: “What does this mean? I have no ties with these companies in any way.” Albayrak would publicly deny his connections with this company several times, but the Russians were not buying his disclaimer. Remember Antonov’s harsh rant: “In the West, no one has asked questions about the fact that the Turkish president’s son heads one of the biggest energy companies, or that his son-in-law has been appointed energy minister. What a marvelous family business!”
ISIS IDEOLOGY REMAINS A THREAT
ISIS caught fire in a place with highly fragmented societies fraught with hate and ignorance, and bedlam broke loose, with reverberations shaking the entire world. It was elated over victories that no other terrorist group had ever achieved, straddling large swathes of land across two countries, enjoying a huge inflow of money into its coffers… Yet it was doomed to perish at the hands of the world’s major powers. ISIS has been militarily defeated, although it has not been exterminated and may again be revived given the ideological and sociological wreckage in the Middle East that had once caused it to emerge. Yet questions concerning its relations during its heyday still linger.
There is no doubt that Turkey tolerated ISIS when it first started to thrive. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s statement in a TV interview that although ISIS was a radicalized terrorist organization, the people joining its ranks were “enraged” young outsiders and Sunni Arabs who were shunned and cast aside politically by the Shiite rulers of Iraq may hint at Turkey’s overall approach to the issue at the time. Turkey basically handled the Syrian dynamic with a broader approach based on two pillars: dethrone Assad at all costs and never allow the Kurds to achieve a recognized political existence, let alone a state.
Turkey’s borders were effectively porous for ISIS transit between 2011 and mid-2014, when the terrorist group captured Mosul. The evidence included in this article has shown how easily jihadi extremists poured into Syria through Turkey during this time. Turkey started to toughen its position against ISIS only later in 2014, restricting border passage and even arresting some ISIS members inside Turkey or at the border gates. But still, the measures were not very harsh, and the detainees were quickly released despite their obvious connections to ISIS. And although border controls have been tightened, a 100-kilometer stretch of its 900-kilometer border with Syria was not sealed at all.
More evidence continues to come to light with the confessions of ISIS captives who tell of the lucrative business the militant group conducted with Turkey while officials looked the other way or in some cases helped meet ISIS demands on a quid pro quo basis.
Russia raised these questions concerning Turkey’s ties with ISIS, especially the oil trade, with serious assertions. The US and NATO both rushed to Turkey’s defense. In the end, Turkey turned its back on its long-time allies and stood with Russia. This alone tells us about the veracity of the Russian accusations. Ironically, the same Antonov who accused Erdoğan and his son and son-in-law of being accomplices in ISIS terrorism was accorded a warm welcome at an exhibition hosted by the Turkish Embassy in Washington in 2019 to commemorate those who lost their lives during the failed coup. Months after accusing Erdoğan of personally ordering the shooting down of the Russian jet to protect the ISIS oil trade, Putin would start behaving like Erdoğan’s best friend. Today these two leaders walk in lockstep and use the same discourse in major international affairs, appearing to be two pals who collaboratively contribute to the formation and advance of the institutions of a modern autocracy. Perhaps Russia knows Erdoğan’s secrets and uses them as leverage to influence Turkish policy and annoy NATO allies. One cannot help but question if Erdoğan, who cannot tolerate even moderate criticism, would be able to swallow Russia’s insults if the claims had no truth to them.