Donald Trump loved to talk about ISIS oil on the campaign trail. He even featured it in his first TV commercial. Originally, he lamented the fact that the U.S. didn’t reimburse itself for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. If only the U.S. took Iraq’s oil years ago, ISIS would never have made a fortune, Trump argued. At one point Trump even suggested the U.S. could take ISIS oil with the help of friendly local forces.
Taking oil from Iraq or ISIS is impossible for all reasons I laid out for the Fuse last September. But Trump’s position also showed flexibility over time. “I would say knock the hell out of the oil, and do it because it’s a primary source of money for ISIS,” Trump told the New York Times last year. “We should’ve taken it,” he said, using the past-tense. “Now we have to destroy the oil. We don’t do it. I just can’t believe we don’t do it.”
“Now we have to destroy the oil. We don’t do it. I just can’t believe we don’t do it.”
The truth is that the U.S. started attacking the ISIS oil trade in September 2014, although for the first year the campaign was extremely cautious and the effects were limited. That changed on October 21, 2015, with the launch of Operation Tidal Wave II, which was designed to cripple the ISIS oil trade and keep the pressure on. The U.S. started hitting oil wells by the dozens and trucks carrying ISIS oil by the hundreds. Both were previously off-limits.
As I wrote for Foreign Policy in October, Tidal Wave II was and remains a major success. There’s no doubt ISIS oil production and revenue fell dramatically last year. Going into 2017, the only question was whether a new president would stick with the old game plan or double down on a winning strategy. The numbers tell us that President Trump doubled down–with gusto.
Add up the ISIS oil assets hit since 2014 and you’ll find two out of every three were damaged or destroyed in the first six months of this year. June 2017 was the worst month yet for the ISIS oil sector (and the best yet for the Coalition): 365 ISIS oil assets were hit last month, not including trucks.
Charted month-by-month, this year’s strike tallies dwarf the 2014-2016 period.
Without wells to pump oil and trucks to carry it there would be no ISIS oil trade. Starting last summer–several months into the Tidal Wave II campaign–the decision was made to aggressively target oil wells. 298 wells were taken out in all of 2016. In the first half of 2017, the U.S. reportedly hit 546 wells. More than 1,700 oil and fuel trucks have been hit altogether.
We don’t know how many wells are active in ISIS territory now. But we do know how many were active when Fathi al-Tunisi (aka Abu Sayyaf), the head of the Islamic State’s NOC, was killed by U.S. commandos in May 2015. His declassified memos revealed that he operated 253 oil wells in Iraq and Syria two years ago. So how/why is it the U.S. has taken out almost 900 total? The simple fact is the U.S. has no choice but to hit wellheads repeatedly if ISIS repairs them. That may be changing, though.
The simple fact is the U.S. has no choice but to hit wellheads repeatedly if ISIS repairs them. That may be changing, though.
Late last year, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick first reported that the U.S. had started targeting well casings below the surface. Exploding the casing underground is quite clever. It makes the repair process much more difficult, costly, and time consuming for ISIS, which has to dig down before it can build up again, if at all. It’s also likelier that an underground demolition will snuff out any fire resulting from the ignition of oil and gas. Thus, the risk of triggering a toxic, out-of-control oil fire on the surface is much diminished.
U.S. officials tell me ISIS oil production is likely below ten thousand barrels a day. Two years ago, ISIS produced five times as much, according to the group’s internal documents.
In addition to hitting old targets in new ways, the U.S. is also attacking new targets, including civilian-run oil stills or “backyard” refineries. Thousands of these basic stills operate in eastern Syria. Together they represent the vast majority of refining capacity inside ISIS territory, making them indispensable. (Refiners simply fill a metal tank with crude, heat it to a boil and condense the resulting vapor into low-grade fuel; see satellite pics and more details here.) Over the last few years these stills sprang up in clusters along the Euphrates River and roads that connect Syrian oil fields to major population centers. Like the middlemen truckers who haul ISIS crude, the oil refiners and roadside fuel retailers paid licensing fees and various taxes to the Caliphate. Otherwise, they operated independently.
If the U.S. wants to minimize civilian casualties, this is easy in theory, because the stills are immobile and easy to observe for prolonged periods.
Only this year did the U.S. start targeting stills. 302 were destroyed in the first six months of 2017. That may be a tiny fraction of the total but, more than anything, these strikes are intended as a warning shot to scare away refiners who do business with ISIS, directly or indirectly. When U.S. forces attacked mile-long truck queues waiting for ISIS oil in 2015, they took special care to warn the civilian drivers shortly before the strikes (with leaflets and targeted text messages). The same could be done for stills. Moreover, it’s easy to identify which stills are active from above. The fires stoked to boil batches of crude create unmistakable plumes of smoke.
It’s telling that humanitarian organizations have not flagged civilian deaths in the oil patch like they have elsewhere. If the U.S. wants to minimize civilian casualties, this is easy in theory, because the stills are immobile and easy to observe for prolonged periods. Plus, they’re usually located in sparse, desert areas, away from people. My conversations with U.S. officials on this issue left me encouraged.
Also noteworthy is that the U.S. is still hitting semi-sophisticated refineries in 2017. These small-scale units can process more oil than any backyard still; the yield per batch is far better and the fuel quality is relatively good. 13 refineries have been hit this year. U.S. officials have high confidence that these refineries are not new or imported. Rather, it’s likelier that ISIS managed to disguise some old units and salvage others from Iraq, where it’s retreating.
Looking back at three years of strike data, it’s clear that nothing is off-limits now and Tidal Wave II has gone into overdrive under President Trump. ISIS is poorer for it.