Peter Van Buren on Stopping ISIS: Follow the Money

Wars are expensive. The recruitment and sustainment of fighters in the field, the ongoing purchases of weapons and munitions, as well as the myriad other costs of struggle, add up.

So why isn’t the United States going after Islamic State’s funding sources as a way of lessening or eliminating their strength at making war? Follow the money back, cut it off, and you strike a blow much more devastating than an airstrike. But that has not happened. Why?


Many have long held that Sunni terror groups, ISIS now and al Qaeda before them, are funded via Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia, who are also longtime American allies. Direct links are difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to prove them. The issue is exacerbated by suggestions that the money comes from “donors,” not directly from national treasuries, and may be routed through legitimate charitable organizations or front companies.

In fact, one person concerned about Saudi funding was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warned in a 2009 message on WikiLeaks that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

At the G20, Russian President Vladimir Putin said out loud what has otherwise not been publicly discussed much in public. He announced that he has shared intelligence with the other G20 member states which reveals 40 countries from which ISIS finances the majority of its terrorist activities. The list reportedly included a number of G20 countries.

Putin’s list of funders has not been made public. The G20, however, include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the European Union.


One source of income for ISIS is and has robustly been oil sales. In the early days of the air campaign, American officials made a point to say that the Islamic State’s oil drilling assets were high on the target list. Yet few sites have actually been targeted. A Pentagon spokesperson explained that the coalition has actually been trying to spare some of ISIS’s largest oil producing facilities, “recognizing that they remain the property of the Syrian people,” and to limit collateral damage to civilians nearby.

The US only this week began a slightly more aggressive approach toward the oil, albeit bombing tanker trucks, not the infrastructure behind them. The trucks were destroyed at the Abu Kamal oil collection point, near the Iraqi border.

Conservative estimates are that Islamic State takes in one to two million dollars a day from oil sales; some see the number as high as four million a day. As recently as February, however, the Pentagon claimed oil was no longer ISIS’ main way to raise money, having been bypassed by those “donations” from unspecified sources, and smuggling.


One of the issues with selling oil, by anyone, including ISIS, is bringing the stuff to market. Oil must be taken from the ground using heavy equipment, possibly refined, stored, loaded into trucks or pipelines, moved somewhere and then sold into the worldwide market. Large amounts of money must be exchanged, and one to four million dollars a day is a lot of cash to deal with on a daily basis. It may be that some sort of electronic transactions that have somehow to date eluded the United States are involved.

Interestingly, The Guardian reported a US-led raid on the compound housing the Islamic State’s chief financial officer produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members, including the ISIS officer responsible for directing the terror army’s oil and gas operations in Syria.

Turkey’s “open door policy,” in which it allowed its southern border to serve as an unofficial transit point in and out of Syria, has been said to be one of ISIS’ main routes for getting their oil to market. A Turkish apologist claimed the oil is moved only via small-diameter plastic irrigation pipes, and is thus hard to monitor.

Others believe Turkish and Iraqi oil buyers travel into Syria with their own trucks, and purchase the ISIS oil right at the refineries, transporting themselves out of Syria. Convoys of trucks are easy to spot from the air, and easy to destroy from the air, though up until now the U.S. does not seem to have done so.

A smuggled barrel of oil is sold for about $50 on the black market. This means several million dollars a day worth of oil would require a very large number of very small pipes.

So as is said, ISIS’ sources of funding grow curious and curiouser the more one knows. Those seeking to destroy ISIS might well wish to look into where the money comes from, and ask why, after a year and three months of war, no one has bothered to follow the money.

And cut it off.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.

14 thoughts on “Peter Van Buren on Stopping ISIS: Follow the Money”

  1. The sick, sad reality is that the US doesn't really want to stop ISIS until those rabid dogs finish off Assad. America has often used some of it's sleazier Allies to fund projects to dirty to be caught touching directly. They used Israel and apartheid South Africa to move guns to the Contra's and many of the same states now funding ISIS helped us build another unstoppable terror army in Afghanistan to destabilize the USSR. It makes a history buff wonder. Maybe the real reason America doesn't want to follow the money is because it leads back to us.

  2. I wish those 40 countries were leaked. Why hide the information? We can probably can guess right a lot of them.

  3. In looking a the list of G20 nations I notice they're in A-B-C order (as our son's elementary school teacher would say…"alphabetical" not being a word common to the lexicon of North Carolina schools) and missing from the "I" countries is our ol' Pal. We know that they provide the Comprehensive Healthcare Plan free of charge for al-Qaeda fighters. Why not ISIS?

    Note: I say "free of charge". That is free to al-Qaeda. I'm sure the costs are covered by Israel and probably rolled into their "defense" budget which has benefactors on the Potomac…well, that's who writes the checks…the funds come from…hmmm…let's see…

    Follow the money, indeed.

  4. It is sad that by now we still cannot figure out neocon style of propaganda, their tactics or methods. Turkey is a BIG TARGET for neocons as it messes up all their neat plans laid up for Syria and mother Russia. It is a slippery customer, this Turkey — says one thing, thinks another, does the third. The BOTTOM line is that the big stories about Turkey being the customer of ISIS oil, is malarkey. Sure, some of it gets there, the greedy human nature at work. But with the Kurdish border there, there is a question what really goes where. Also, while we are at it, who pays for decade old Kurdish armed secessionism against Turkey? And why is it that now Turkish PKK is in Iraq, and is competing with Peshmerga leaders for the leadership — and it is OK with US. More then OK. Transparent goal being taking Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, take Syrian one as well if possible — and voila! Another Kosovo. To take place of another regional agent of provocation, to take the spotlight from Israel. Same old thinking.

    Now about the SERIOUS money made from oil sale by ISIS. The Russian intelligence data showed at G-20 shows the line of trucks, one after the other, spanning miles across horizon, seen from the space. And an aircraft photographs show the line of trucks, tightly packed one after the other crossing into IRAQ. Not Turkey.

    The other day a curious article in CNN Money section. It states that THIS YEAR US is importing MUCH MORE OIL AND GAS FROM IRAQ, then ever. And another — even more curious information. According to this article — it is good for US to be buying refined products, gasoline, from Iraq. It claims that it is more advantageous to us to buy gasoline from their refineries. Not really having any expertise in the pro/cons of shipping oil, vs. gasoline to US, and the tradeoffs between using our vs. Iraqi refineries — it struck me as a perfect way to export ISIS oil. All those trucks head to Iraqi refineries, and once refined and mixed up with all the legitimate oil refining they do — it is laundered clean of any ISIS trace. I have a feeling that the low prices we enjoy have much to do with ISIS taking oil from both Syria and Iraq and selling it to refineries.

    I am absolutely convinced that attacking oil trucks in the ENTIRE ISIS territory, not just Syrian — would do the damage. It is making no sense to destroy infrastructure of these countries, but it will be easy to destroy their ability to take it to markets.

    Russia was the FIRST country to destroy trucks. Since it started over 500 destroyed. US has now FOR THE FIRST TIME destroyed trucks, about 150 of them. About time.

  5. Oil must be taken from the ground using heavy equipment, possibly refined, stored, loaded into trucks or pipelines, moved somewhere and then sold into the worldwide market.

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