Our over-reliance on oil has dangerous consequences. When you pay at the pump, your hard-earned cash isn’t just going to oil companies — it also fills the pockets of terrorists and hostile regimes that harbor dangerous ideologies. Read more
For thousands of years, there was a commodity that people across the globe, from China to Rome to Texas, fought bloody conflicts to secure. A product that was used to pay solders and decided the outcomes of wars. No, I’m not talking about gold — I’m talking about salt.
Fuel Freedom Foundation chairman Yossie Hollander delivered the keynote address Nov. 16 at a discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., called “U.S.-China Energy Cooperation: Risks, Opportunities, and Solutions.”
Oil prices continue to plummet, owing to an oversize inventory and the prospect of still more crude coming onto the market from Iran. But that doesn’t seem to have turned off the spigot of revenue flowing to extremist groups.
At one point last year, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was believed to be raking in $3 million a day in black-market sales of oil the group pumped from territories in Syria and Iran it took over during a swift campaign. ISIS once controlled several Iraqi oil fields, but thanks to a counteroffensive involving U.S. airstrikes and an American-backed campaign by the Iraqi security forces, the group now has only one, according to Agence France-Presse.
But ISIS’s oil operations have only been scaled back, not thoroughly halted. According to a story in The New York Times this week, ISIS has transformed from a simply bloodthirsty terrorist group, the successor to al-Qaeda, into a fully functioning government. It has a complex economy that relies not just on stolen oil, but other revenue sources, including kidnapping, extortion and an assortment of taxes and levies.
That complexity is evident in the way ISIS pumps and transports oil: Based on a BBC2 program called “The World’s Richest Terror Army” that aired this spring, ISIS even sells the oil it gets from fields in eastern Syria back to the Syrian government, even though the group is a sworn enemy of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
ISIS sells some of its oil to the people it governs — some 8 million in the territory it controls — and smuggles more of it across the Turkish border. According to a story in U.K.’s Independent, around the time of the BBC special in April:
A Syrian source involved in oil smuggling for Isis explained how oil brought in one of the group’s biggest streams of revenue. “Isis controls the oil wells in our region of Deir Ezzor, which is rich in oil,” he said. “My family, friends and members of my tribe by oil from Isis and smuggle it to the refineries and then to civilian markets.” The US treasury estimates Isis is still earning $2 million a week by smuggling oil in spite of a sustained bombing campaign by the US-led coalition.
The documentary reveals that militants have developed ways of pumping oil hundreds of metres across the border and floating it in barrels down rivers in order to export it into areas not held by Isis.
ISIS is far from the only extremist group that finances its activities through oil, one way or another. According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally that also hates ISIS — is home to many financiers of global terrorism:
This Gulf monarchy is a … state in which no taxes are imposed on the population. Instead, Saudis have a religious tax, the zakat, requiring all Muslims to give at least 2.5 percent of their income to charities. Many of the charities are truly dedicated to good causes, but others merely serve as money laundering and terrorist financing apparatuses. While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money goes toward good causes, others know full well the terrorist purposes to which their money will be funneled.
Oil not only underwrites terrorism, it gives oil-exporting nations in the Persian Gulf an outsize influence on the world stage. The United States and other Western countries devote inordinate amounts of resources and attention to dealing with the Middle East and its many internecine struggles, at the expense of other parts of the world.
Also, the task of defending the flow of oil from the region routinely falls to the United States, and using less oil would absolve us of the need to send in troops and keep up military bases to protect supply routes.
“As long as we keep buying oil from the Middle East, our enemies can continue to fund terrorism,” oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens wrote in TIME earlier this month. “For too long we have spent the lives and limbs of thousands of young men and women fighting in the Middle East, and we still bear most of the cost of protecting the about 17 million barrels that flow through the Strait of Hormuz every day even though only about 10% of that oil comes to us.”
Some say we can drill our way to oil independence, but the reality is, the U.S. still needs about 19 million barrels of oil a day to function, and the “shale revolution” only restored U.S. production to a peak of about 10 million barrels. The rest has to come from somewhere.
If the U.S. used more alternative fuels for vehicles, instead of primarily oil-based gasoline and diesel, we could reduce our dependence on oil — and shrink the influence of the countries that supply it.
To learn more about the connections between oil and terrorism, visit our National Security page.
Over the last month, the following incidents have taken place in the Middle East:
- On July 4, a car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Baghdad, killing nine people and injuring 24. Although no one took credit for the attack, suspicion fell on ISIS, which had been responsible for previous bombings in Baghdad. The incident was described as one of the deadliest in recent memory.
- On July 12, a series of car bombs and suicide attacks killed 35 people and injured more than 100, mainly in Shi’ite neighborhoods. In the deadliest attack in the northern Shaab neighborhood, a car bomb exploded and then a suicide bomber detonated another explosion once police and crowds had gathered at the scene of the first explosion. Once again, ISIS was believed to be responsible. The incident was described as the deadliest in recent memory.
- On July 18, a truck loaded with explosives was detonated in a busy Baghdad market, killing 120 and wounding 130. The explosion occurred while the local populace was celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the monthlong Ramadan holiday. The explosion destroyed 50 stores and 75 cars, and leveled two buildings. It was said to be the worst incident so far this year.
- A month earlier, terrorists struck in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on the same day, June 26. No one knows whether the events were coordinated or just occurred by coincidence. In Kuwait, an explosion at a Shi’ite mosque killed 25 worshippers and destroyed the mosque. In Tunisia on the same day, a lone gunman wielding an assault rifle killed 38 people, mostly tourists, on a public beach. ISIS claimed credit for both incidents, although it did not say they had been coordinated. In France, a lone terrorist made it past security at an American-owned chemical factory, set off a gas explosion, and then decapitated a company executive and posted his head on a gate next to two Muslim flags. At the beginning of the holy month, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a spokesman for ISIS, had exhorted his followers: “Muslims, embark and hasten toward jihad. O mujahedeen everywhere, rush and go to make Ramadan a month of disasters for the infidels.”
Many American think all this violence started with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact, it’s been going on since the 7th century. The original argument began with the succession to Muhammad’s leadership when he died in 632 A.D. There were two claimants to his legacy. The first was the Umayyad Caliph, made up of the followers of Muhammad’s entourage in Medina and Baghdad. The second was Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, who claimed to be his legitimate heir.
In 680, Caliph Muawiyah I of the Umayyad died and tried to pass his rule on to his son, Yazid, despite a written agreement with Hussein to honor his claim to the throne. Yazid demanded that Hussein acknowledge his rulership, and Hussein refused. Instead, he mounted an army and headed toward Baghdad, where Yazid was seated. During the march, however, Hussein’s supporters dwindled, and when he arrived at Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, he only had 75 followers left. There he was met by an army of 1,000 men sent forth from Baghdad by Yazid.
Hussein deliberated for a week before deciding once again to refuse Yazid’s leadership and join him in battle. By this time, Yazid’s army had swelled to 6,000. Hussein went to battle with about 75. Hussein’s army was slaughtered, and he was himself beheaded and his head sent to Baghdad. Hussein’s followers set up a rival caliphate in Medina, however, and the schism between the Sunni Umayyad Empire and the rival Shi’ites began and continues to this day.
The Shi’ia, who eventually established their dominion in Persia (Iran), still celebrate the holiday of Ashura, in which they flagellate themselves because they were not there to help Hussein at the Battle of Karbala. As one scholar has put it, the Shi’ia are “born martyrs.” Iran is the one country you can imagine starting a nuclear war, even if it meant nuclear suicide.
All this would be only of antiquarian interest if it were not that more than half the world’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf. And all that oil is continually riding on the chance that the two sides will not disrupt the flow of oil — or destroy whole oil fields — in their endless, ongoing battles. The stakes are only getting higher. Last week, ISIS rebels in the Sinai Peninsula claimed to have hit an Egyptian naval vessel with a guided missile offshore in the Mediterranean. How long will it be before rival factions are firing guided missiles at oil tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz?
It is impossible to choose sides in the Middle East. For instance, ever since the 9/11 attack, the United States has considered al-Qaeda to be its prime adversary in the world. Yet last week, Americans found themselves on the same side as al-Qaeda in backing Saudi Arabia’s efforts to expel the Shi’ite Houthi rebels from Yemen. Yet at the very same time, we were negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran that is widely perceived as supporting the Shi’ite faction in the Middle East, in defiance of Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have said they may seek a nuclear weapon themselves if Iran is able to secure one. Imagine a nuclear-armed Iran and Saudi Arabia facing each other across the Persian Gulf while our oil tankers try to escape into the Indian Ocean.
The only reasonable strategy here is to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. We still import 20 percent of our oil from the Persian Gulf, with 13 percent coming from Saudi Arabia. This is down from over 30 percent a decade ago, but we can still go further. America’s amazing improvement in oil production has played a part, but we are still dependent on oil for 80 percent of our transport sector. Substituting other kinds of fuels to power our vehicles is the obvious answer.
The Middle East tinder box isn’t going to go away during our lifetime. The obvious solution is to disassociate ourselves as much as possible. Freeing ourselves from our dependence on oil for our transport sector is the first and foremost step forward.
Everyone likes hidden conspiracies, either fact or fiction. Covert conspiracies are the stuff of great and not-so-great novels. Whether true or false, when believed, they often cause tectonic policy shifts, wars, terrorism and ugly behavior by groups and individuals. They are part of being human and sometimes reflect the inhumanity of men and women toward their fellow human beings.
I have been following the recent media attention on conspiracies concerning oil, gasoline and Saudi Arabia. They are all over the place. If foolish consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then the reporters and editorial writers are supportive stringers for inconsistency. Let me briefly summarize the thoughts and counter thoughts of some of the reported conspiracy theorists and practitioners:
- The Saudis are refusing to limit production and raise the price of oil because they want to severely weaken the economy of Iran. The tension between the two nations has increased and, to some extent, is now being framed both by real politics (concerning who’s going to carry the big stick in the region) and by sectarianism. Iran’s oil remains under sanction and the Saudis hope (and may even be working with Israel, at least in a back-office way) to keep it that way.
- No, you’re wrong. The Saudis are now after market penetration and are lowering the price of oil to impede U.S. development and production of oil from shale. Right now, they are not worrying so much about oil from Iran-given sanctions…but they probably will, if there is a nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
- You both are nuts. The Saudis and the U.S. government are working together to blunt Russian oil sales and its economy. The U.S. and Saudis can withstand low oil prices, but the Russians are, and will be, significantly hurt economically. If it hurts Iran so much, the better! But the Cold War is back and the reset is a failure.
- Everyone is missing the boat. The Saudis don’t really control prices or production to the extent that they did in the past. Neither does OPEC. Don’t look for conspiracies, except perhaps within the Kingdom itself. The most powerful members of the Saudi royal family understand that if they limit production to raise prices per barrel, it probably wouldn’t work in a major way. The U.S. has become a behemoth concerning oil from shale. If a nuclear deal goes through, Iran will have sanctions lessoned or removed relatively soon. Should the Russian and West reach some sort of cold peace in Ukraine, Russia will become a player again. When you add Canada, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States to the mix, lower global demand, and increase the value of the dollar, you get an uncertain oil future. The Saudis, led by their new king, are buying time and casing out their oil future.
To me, the Saudi decisions and the subsequent OPEC decisions were muddled through. Yet, they appear reasonably rational. Saudi leaders feared rising prices and less oil production. Their opportunity costing, likely, went something like this: “If we raise prices, and reduce production, we will lose global market share and maybe, in the current market, even dollar or riyal value. Our production costs are relatively low, compared to shale development in the U.S. While costs may go higher in the future, particularly once drilling on flat desert land becomes more difficult in light of geology, we can make a profit at the present time, even at $30-40 a barrel. Conversely, we believe that for the time being, U.S. shale developers cannot make a profit going below $40-50. Maybe we are wrong, but if we are, our cost/profit equation is not wrong by much. By doing what we are doing, we will undercut American production. Sure, other exporting countries, including our allies in the Gulf will be hurt temporarily, but, in the long run, they and we will be better off. Further, restricting production and assumedly securing higher prices is not a compelling approach. It could cause political and social tension in the country. We rely on oil sales, cash flow and profit as well as reserves to, in effect, buy at least short-term civic peace from our citizens. Oil revenue helps support social services and basic infrastructure. We’ve got to keep it coming.”
The Kingdom understands that it can no longer control prices through production — influence, yes, but, with the rise of U.S. oil development, it cannot control production. Conspiracy theories or assumed practices don’t add much to the analysis of Saudi behavior concerning their cherished oil resources. Like a steamy novel, they fill our reading time, and sometimes lead to a rise in personal adrenaline. Often, at different moments, they define the bad guys vs. the good guys, or Taylor Swift vs. Madonna.
No single nation will probably have the power once held by OPEC and the Saudis. While human and institutional frailties and desires for wealth and power suggest there always will be conspiratorial practices aimed at influencing international prices of oil and international power relationships, their relevance and impact will diminish significantly. Their net effect will become apparent, mostly with respect to regional and local environments, like Yemen and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Recently, I asked a Special Forces officer, “Why is the U.S. fighting in Iraq?” I expected him to recite the speeches of politicians — you know, the ones about democracy, freedom and a better life for the citizens of Iraq. But he articulated none of these. He said one word, “Oil”! All the rest is B.S. I think he was and remains mostly right. His answer might help us understand part of the reason for the strange alliance between the Saudis and U.S. military efforts in or near Yemen at the present time. Beyond religious hatred and regional power struggles, it might also help us comprehend at least part of the reasons for Iran’s support of the U.S.-led war against ISIS — a war that also involves other “democratic” friends of the U.S. such as the Saudis and the Gulf States.
The alliances involve bitter enemies. On the surface, they seem somewhat mystifying. Sure, complex sectarian and power issues are involved, and the enemies of my enemies can sometimes become, in these two cases, less than transparent friends. But you know, these two conflicts — Yemen and ISIS — I believe, also reflect the combatant’s interest in oil and keeping oil-shipping routes open.
President Obama has argued that we should use alternative energy sources to fuel America’s economy and he has stated that we need to wean the U.S. off of oil and gasoline. Doing both, if successful, would be good for the environment, and limit the need to send our military to protect oil lifelines. Similarly, opening up U.S. fuel markets to alternative fuels and competition would mute the U.S. military intervention gene, while curing us, to a large degree, of mistakenly granting conspiracy advocates much respectability. Oh, I forgot to indicate that the oil companies continue their secret meetings. Their agenda is to frustrate the evolution of open fuel markets and consumer choices concerning fuel at the pump. Back to the conspiracy drawing boards! Nothing is what it seems, is it?
Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/
The dialogue was funny at the time. But the joke, in some respects, tracks the current, very serious situation in the Middle East: Who’s on first, a very militant Sunni group called ISIS; What’s on second, well maybe Iraq (if it can get its act together, which is increasingly unlikely); and, I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe the Peshmerga from among the Kurdish Regional State in Iraq and, perhaps soon, a surprise addition from the Kurdish PKK military group living among Kurds in Turkey. Who are the umpires? Perhaps Israel. Maybe OPEC. How about the world’s respected ethicists — if they can ever agree.
Isn’t this fun? Let’s try it again, for there are several possible lineups. Let’s try this one: Who’s on first, how about the Assad-related Shiites in Syria. What’s on second, the new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe, but unlikely, in light of its numerous conflicting interests (e.g., NATO, Islam, etc.), Turkey. Who’s the hapless lonely umpire or umpires at home plate? Perhaps, the U.N. — the so-called moderate rebels. Perhaps the USA, England or France, or perhaps all three. After all, each Western country has had, at best, a difficult, morally ambiguous historical record in the area, and faces a tough, complex future. Justice and fairness have not always guided their respective objectives and actions. If you believe they have, step up to the plate and you can buy the Brooklyn Bridge for a dollar.
It’s a crazy baseball game! I know the Israelis are in the stands but they have found it tough to get emotional. In their view, at least, both of the team’s captains are Iranian. Since it’s not in the official lineup, the game has little meaning to the Israelis.
We are not sure that all the batters, base runners and umpires are on the same team or in the same game. At times, some players appear to run right and some left. Some run into each other. Others don’t run at all. Most appear to be playing by Middle Eastern norms, which mean they frequently change uniforms, roles, rules and alliances. The umpires seem to be confused and frustrated. They may be ready soon to go for a higher legal or spiritual reviewer but they cannot agree on which one (e.g., the International Court of Justice, God or his or her surrogate).
I yearn for the simplicity of just a year or two ago — before ISIS. Many of our leaders and media types referred to America’s role then in terms of seeking stability in the Middle East. Some even suggested, often knowing better, that it was based on a commitment to establishing western-style democracy. Very few played Don Quixote, or even a good forensic economist searching for the truth. U.S. and Western involvement in the Middle East for a long time has been, to a large degree, premised on dependency on oil. As dependency on oil imports was recently reduced significantly to about 30-35 percent of total oil use because of tight oil development, increased fuel standards, and a slow growth economy, the U.S. has agreed to defend our allies’ right to unfettered international oil transportation from wellhead to refinery.
Democracy and oil proved to be an uneasy mix. Secular animosity and intense internal as well as external competition for oil revenue and market share seemed much more difficult than the naive assertion made after 9/11 that the Iraq citizenry would welcome U.S. military with cheering crowds — shades of WWII after U.S. troupes retook Paris. If only it could have been!
What has occurred in the past year or so has once again shifted the game players, the rules and roles (the ecology of Middle Eastern games). The rise of ISIS and its quick absorption of land in both Syria and Iraq combined with its brutality toward the vanquished in captured territories as well as detained westerners has shifted U.S. and its new coalition’s (e.g., England, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kurds, etc.) attention away from getting rid of Assad to stopping establishment of the caliphate. No longer is democracy a major goal. How could it be with such tested democratic states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar front and center? I shouldn’t be cynical…or should I? Now the focus is on stability — translated: salvage what can salvaged from what is left of Iraq and assumedly prevention of what appears to be an increasing sectarianism from disintegrating into wars fought over God and Mammon or maybe my God and your Mammon or vice versa. The new coalition led by the U.S., apart from the British and French includes:
- Implicitly, Iran, despite Iran’s enmity and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
- Syria, despite its vicious regime, a regime that has killed or terrorized large sectors of its population, far more than ISIS has to date and probably will far into the future.
- Qatar, whose chameleon foreign policy reminds one constantly of Ronald Reagan’s quote about the Russians, “Trust but verify.”
- Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-dominated kingdom, that, until the Arab Spring, seemed reasonably secure in its religious, non-democratically based, very conservative legal framework, as well as a caste and class system based on discrimination and corruption.
- Iraq, a country that, despite U.S. support, is a nation in name only. It is divided by sectarianism into at least three potential would-be nations — each one dominated by dominant religious and ethnic groups. Its central government is unable or unwilling to secure consensus as to governance and military approaches. Its army, despite years of U.S.-supported training and U.S.-supplied weaponry has been, up to now, no match for ISIS. Its sectarian-controlled militias are not committed to consensus building and may end up as a threat to further nation building.
The new coalition has shaken up the Middle East and suggests the old adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Endorsement of the present nation states in the Middle East, as well as opposition to territorial aggrandizement and religious extremism, provides the rationale for U.S. and Western involvement in the current war.
But, irrespective of the coalition’s normative marching orders about stopping extremism and a big land grasp, I suspect that oil or trafficking in oil remains a key factor, indirectly or directly, in back-room decisions to push back ISIS boundaries. Let’s see: the Saudis must soon consider increasing the price of a barrel of oil if it is to avoid the need to cut back on services to its citizens and risk tension. It also must soon consider an increase in oil prices if it is to sustain its defense budget in terms of the present conflict with ISIS. While the U.S. has surpassed the Saudis in oil production, Saudi oil is needed by the West and Asia to avoid significant future price rises premised on future growth. As a result, the U.S. will remain a protector of oil transit. Apart from fearing the collapse of Iraq for political, economic and moral reasons, the U.S. is still committed to safeguarding Iraq’s oil and the oil from one of its regions, the Kurdish Regional Government, for its allies and also for the revenue needed by both. Qatar is a conundrum. Today, it’s a western ally against ISIS; yesterday, reports indicated it supported militants in the Gaza. Which twin has the Tony? Where will it be tomorrow? Finally, remember ISIS needs oil for revenues to function as a government.
If only! If only we could find home-grown, market-acceptable substitutes for oil and its derivative gasoline that would relieve any hint or suspicion that oil or gasoline would be even an indirect consideration in a U.S. or Western nation decisions to go to war. We are not there yet, in terms of the majority of the vehicle owners. But we are getting close with alcohol-based fuels, biofuels, and hydrogen and electric cars.
Iraq’s Finance Ministry has said ISIS militants are selling oil for as little as $20 per barrel. Though the global market price is steadily declining, at that price (which is not confirmed) ISIS would be selling its oil extremely cheaply, at a discount of around 75 percent. The global oil market price was around $78 per barrel this Monday, down about 30 percent since June this year.
Read more at: Newsweek
Islamic State, or ISIS, continues to earn millions from ill-gotten crude oil sold on the black market, according to a story by the Reuters news service.
ISIS is “still extracting and selling oil in Syria and has adapted its trading techniques despite a month of strikes by U.S.-led forces aimed at cutting off this major source of income for the group, residents, oil executives and traders say.”
This report largely contradicts a story last week by Bloomberg, which has done extensive reporting on ISIS’ finances.
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)
Islamic State, or ISIS, is the world’s most well-financed terrorist network, owing to at least $1 million a day in illicit oil revenues. But David S. Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, expects to make a dent in ISIS’ finances “long before 36 months,” referring to the timeline President Obama laid out last month for the U.S.-led military campaign designed to “degrade and destroy” the group.
Read more in The New York Times.