PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Thirty thousand barrels of oil a day. $19 million a month. That’s apparently the revenues that are flowing to the Islamic State. Its oil exports flowing through Turkey. And now and investigative report accuses Israel of being one of the principal middlemen for Islamic State oil. Now joining us to talk about how all this works, and how it can work given supposedly the bombing campaigns that are going on, is Vijay Prashad. Vijay joins us from Northampton, Massachusetts. He’s the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History, professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. Thanks for joining us again, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure.
JAY: So first of all, what do we know about how the oil gets out? It seems a little bizarre to me that such industrial-scale exports can take place without all the various countries that are supposedly attacking IS being able to stop this.
PRASHAD: Well, first I should say that there are a number of reports and studies that have been conducted. The Financial Times has done some reporting. Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has done a major study on the I think 26th of November, which they called Raqqa’s Rockefeller. The Russian government has released their own paper on what they claim is going on between the ISIS territory, Turkey, and Israel. I did a report called ISIS Oil. So there’s a number of people who have been looking at the phenomena of ISIS oil and how it’s both being taken out of the ground and where it’s going, how ISIS is able to make money.
The story is rooted actually in phenomena that predate ISIS. In other words, there are oil fields in northern Iraq in the Kurdish autonomous region where for many years the Iraqi regional government of Kurdistan has been in some kind of competition with the government in Baghdad, the central government. And oil has been siphoned out of these northern fields, these Kurdish fields, into, onto big trucks, smuggled into Turkey. And then they’ve gone out through [sehan] port, through Malta, often to Israel.
So this is a rather old network that has at least been going for 15 years or so. When ISIS took control of these fields about 18 months ago, they simply used the same networks, smuggling networks. They organized it, they’ve created in Mosul a, you know, an institution called Office of Resources, which controls things that were as far afield as oil smuggling to soft drink distribution. They do a variety of things, this Office of Resources.
As far as the oil is concerned, they’ve, as I said, utilized the old smuggling rings that had been used by the Kurdish regional government, so that oil travels across the border into Turkey. There is some preliminary refining that happens, because Turkey at least in this respect seems to be rather particular that you can only bring crude oil into Turkey if you have a license from the Iraqi government. If the oil is partly refined, then it can cross without that license. So there’s crude refining of the oil. Bribes are paid at the border. And the trucks cross over and dispatch their crudely refined order onto trucks of another smuggling network. So the first set of trucks will return, essentially, to Mosul and to the oil fields in Iraq, and some of them in [inaud.] in eastern Syria.
Inside Turkey, the al-Araby al-Jadeed report skims this over, but here the story is quite fascinating. Because you know, yes, indeed, al-Araby al-Jadeed shows that there is a influential middleman. They call him Uncle Fareed. Fareed had, you know, he has various names, who at least takes charge of some of the trucking networks. But once the oil comes into mainstream Turkey, particularly in the three ports, one in which is [sehan] port, which is run by the Turkish government, there is a mysterious company called BMZ which takes control. And it turns out that BMZ has a familiar name as one of its owners. And that’s the third child of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his name is Bilal Erdogan.
And Bilal Erdogan is one of the owners of BMZ. BMZ recently bought two major oil tankers. Why would they be buying oil tankers unless the flow of oil had increased in recent months? And they, through [sehan], take the oil out to Malta, where it is, again, ship, put onto a different ship, and it goes to Israel. From where it is either consumed in Israel, or it’s laundered or sold out to European markets. To that’s basically how the oil flows.
What we don’t quite know yet, and I think what requires some investigation, is how the finance works. You know, how the payments are taking place. The banking networks that are involved, et cetera. But most of the money as far as the Islamic State is concerned, up to the border with Turkey, is done in cash. So there the question of banks don’t apply. That’s essentially, you know, how the oil travels.
JAY: Now, Vijay, in the–. In the Araby piece they quote an oil official, a European oil industry official, who says that without Israel IS wouldn’t be able to send its oil to Europe. That Israel’s playing a critical link in the exports of IS oil. And then if that’s true it means Israel is playing a critical link in funding IS.
PRASHAD: Well, you see, again this goes back to the networks that pre-date the Islamic State, or ISIS. Israel has indeed played a role recycling or laundering oil from, illegal oil, that has come out of the Kurdish regional government for, you know, ten, fifteen years. I mean, that is how Erbil, the northern capital, has been able to get revenues by itself. And that has been one of the real tension, reasons for tension, between the Kurds in the north in Erbil and the government in Baghdad.
So Israel has indeed been laundering illegal oil from northern Iraq. They seem to not care. They are agnostic, it seems to me, whether that oil is being sold to them by the Kurdish regional government, which is pro-American, or by ISIS, which apparently America is against. In either case, the Israelis seem quite happy to launder that oil and provide, therefore, the group, whether it’s ISIS or the Kurdish government, finances.
So yes, it is absolutely true that the relationship between Malta and Israel is of the essence here. Malta and Israel are joint partners in exploring for oil fields. Some of this is contested with the government of Lebanon, because their waterways are ill-defined. You know, these are two countries still at war. So Malta is a partner with Israel in much of the oil dealings. And yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that without Israel’s laundering ISIS oil would not be able to benefit ISIS.
JAY: Now, it’s certainly the–if journalists can figure out these routes the CIA must be able to figure out–obviously you would think Israel’s Mossad. I mean, this can’t all be happening without everybody knowing. And if in fact they’re trying to close down IS, you’d think they’d closed down the primary source of their revenue. I mean, why wouldn’t the Israeli state step in, unless–it can’t just be about the money they’re making out of the oil.
PRASHAD: Well, Jeremy Corbyn asked this very question during the parliamentary debate in the United Kingdom over whether to bomb Syria. He said, you know, what about the oil revenues? Why aren’t we looking into that? This is what the Russians said when they provided their brief, saying Turkey is a party to the trans-shipment of oil from ISIS territory, and why aren’t they stopping this?
You know, at some level you imagine that this is something that concerns deeply people in, you know, the White House, et cetera, perhaps the CIA. That they understand–they know that this is true, because much of this is open-source reporting. You know, this isn’t, these are not secret documents. This has not relied on, you know, WikiLeaks-type leaks coming from a government. This is, you know, relied-upon old fashioned reporting, where for instance, disgruntled Kurdish oil ministry officials have talked openly with reporters about how they believe that in Kurdistan the oil has been leaking across the border into Turkey. There are people inside Turkey who have talked quite openly, but I think with a great sense of trepidation given the crackdown on press freedom. But they’ve talked quite openly about the role of various Turkish companies in the trans-shipment. And in the side of Malta, there have always been very leaky, you know, corporate people there who speak openly about what’s going on.
I mean, what you have to understand is that there is a political series of contradictions involved here, and not merely whether the evidence is good or bad. You know, the United States has a contradictory relationship with Turkey. They are unable to push Turkey to even close their border, to stop attacking the Kurdish militias, which the U.S. government say are one of the few forces capable of fighting IS on the ground.
These are political contradictions. I think within these institutions the U.S. government, perhaps the Israeli government, there is some debate going on about why they haven’t responded to something that is so obvious as trucks driving through the Turkish landscape, taking IS oil to Israel.
JAY: Now, you made a point in your article that the Americans have done very little bombing of these oil trucks. They kind of picked it up after the Russians started bombing oil trucks. How do you explain the Americans allowing this kind of flow of funds into IS?
PRASHAD: Well, I asked somebody in the State Department this. And you know, she’s not a spokesperson, not possible for her to speak on the record. But she basically said something that I found very unbelievable, which is that it’s taken them time to perfect their targeting. They didn’t want to hit civilians, they don’t believe that the truck drivers should be targeted, that they themselves aren’t, you know, a party to IS. They are merely driving trucks. So they had to finesse their operations.
Well, this sounded a little far-fetched to me. The United States has not been known, you know, as a humanitarian bomber when it’s bombed other logistical convoys in Afghanistan or elsewhere. So this seemed a little odd to me. Yes, it–of course, it appears directly that the American bombing, the few bombings now of oil convoys have followed the ration bombings of the oil convoys. But you know, I just want to say that even the bombings of the oil convoys, it will have a dent on ISIS’s Office of Resources. But the vast bulk of ISIS funding comes from confiscations, extortion, and taxation. And that is not going to be affected by aerial bombardment. So whether they bomb the trucks or not, ISIS funding is not going to be completely depleted.
What this attack at the ISIS oil is going to do is to put pressure on groups–on countries such as Turkey and Israel and others that are playing a duplicitous game in this international coalition against ISIS. I think that is far more important. It’s clarifying the politics. Where does Turkey stand vis-a-vis ISIS? Where does Israel stand?
JAY: Listen, we’ve been saying–and you and I have talked about this, I’ve talked about this in other interviews on the Real News. But the fundamental strategy of the United States and Israel in Syria was let everybody kill each other, as long as it takes. In other words, make sure no one side gets a real strategic advantage over the other. And if one gets too strong, strengthen one of the other sides. Do you think this has something to do with it, that they don’t–you know, they don’t want a complete collapse of ISIS.
PRASHAD: Well, look, it’s–. This is a plausible scenario. I’ve never heard it from anybody in a position of authority, you know, that they feel that they don’t want to see the collapse of ISIS. But what they do say, which comes close to that, is that destroying ISIS itself is not going to give the Sunni population of northwestern Iraq an sections of northern Syria, it’s not going to give the Sunni population confidence that they, you know, their sort of anxieties, their grievances, would be taken care of. In other words, just allowing the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, to be overrun by the Iraqi army is itself not going to bring that Sunni population to understand that their needs would be taken care of by the Iraqi state, and the same of course in Syria.
So this the American administration says quite clearly, that they don’t want to see a precipitous, you know, move by what they see is a largely Shia army overrunning Sunni parts of Iraq, in particular. What they would prefer to see is some other solution take place. And in lieu of that, of course, you have the status quo, where ISIS remains in control. So yeah, I mean, I don’t think there’s a serious attempt to break ISIS. You know, yes, they are having–doing some strategic bombing raids against ISIS. But there is nobody moving against them. And in Syria it is so particularly fraught, because the American government continues to dance between acknowledgement that without having the Syrian Arab army, in other words the army of Bashar al-Assad, involved with the Kurds, with other forces against ISIS, at some point they say we need to, you know, help them. At other points they say no, we need to also get rid of Assad.
There’s a kind of ambivalence in Syria which has not been fully worked out. In fact, there was a report recently that American planes bombed Syrian Arab army fighters near [inaud.], where they were involved in operations against ISIS. The Syrian government in Damascus said that you are operating against the air force of ISIS.
Paul, it’s so complicated. And it’s very hard to get the Americans to clarify what they’re doing. You know, at every turn the State Department and other officials say contradictory things. Unless they start to clarify what they’re saying, this is open field for all kinds of conspiracy theories.
JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.
PRASHAD: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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