ISTANBUL, Turkey — The lifeblood of the death-dealing Islamic State is diesel fuel. And the group widely known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL is filling its war chest with millions of dollars earned by smuggling thousands of tons of of this black gold into neighboring Turkey, according to independent analysts and Turkish opposition leaders.
Remember, Turkey is a member of NATO, and could and should be the key member of the U.S.-led 10-nation coalition that was formed last week at the NATO summit in Wales to fight ISIS. It has almost 650,000 men and women under arms. It borders ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, where the black flags of the so-called “caliphate” are visible from the Turkish side of the fence. It has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees, and it is less than 100 miles from the de-facto ISIS capital, Mosul, where 49 Turkish citizens, including several diplomats, have been held hostage since June.
The Turkish government of former prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long offered at least tacit support to Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad. Many of the international volunteers who joined that fight passed through Turkish territory virtually unhindered. But there have been growing concerns inside Turkey and among its NATO allies that as ISIS has grabbed control over much of the armed Syrian opposition and declared a caliphate recognizing no international borders, Erdogan has been slow to change course.
The diesel smuggling is documented in official figures released by the Turkish military just days before U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s arrival in Ankara on Monday.
The lack of effective measures to stop the smuggling has some analysts doubting whether Ankara is fully committed to the confrontation with the jihadists on its southern border. They say the hostages are one reason, but there may be others.
“Turkey’s hands are tied,” says Celalettin Yavuz, a political analyst and former military officer who taught at Turkey’s military academy. The threat of possible ISIS attacks within the Muslim-majority country is another factor that could dampen Ankara’s enthusiasm for decisive action against the jihadists. According to Turkish media reports, ISIS members have warned of such reprisals.
But Yavuz insists that Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest military after the United States, could at least do more against the illegal border trade. At a minimum it could boost the number of troops it has patrolling the 900-kilometer frontier, Yavuz told The Daily Beast. Western intelligence services are aware of the smuggling and how it has helped ISIS, Yavuz said. Some media reports say Turkey has begun recently to tighten some controls in the border region.
The figures published by Turkey’s armed forces offer a glimpse of what appears to be a highly organized criminal operation. While there has always been smuggling in the region, the volume now is striking.
According to the website of the Turkish general staff, more than 15 tons of fuel and pipeline components of a total length of around 2.8 kilometers were confiscated by border troops between Aug 22 and Sept 4. And analysts say the 15 tons are just a fraction of the quantities involved.
Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told The Daily Beast he was trying to get an official government comment on reports saying that ISIS was exporting up to 4,000 tons of fuel to Turkey every day and earning $15 million every month from the trade. “I am expecting some answers here,” he said.
In a formal question to the government that he tabled in parliament, Tanal has asked Interior Minister Efkan Ala about the dimension of the illegal trade. He also asked the government to comment on unverified reports that ISIS has begun to threaten local officials on the Turkish side of the border, warning them not to try to stem the flow of smuggled goods from Syria. Ala has yet to answer.
The ISIS fuel comes from Syrian oil fields near the militia’s powerbase in Raqqa and is transported in trucks to the region bordering Turkey. The fuel is then brought into the country in plastic barrels or by pipelines.
Yavuz, the political analyst, said the smugglers had helpers in Turkish villages on the border and that people involved in the illegal trade felt so safe they did not even hide their activities. “Pipelines are no longer built during the night, but in broad daylight,” he said. Sometimes when police are sent to investigate, farmers block the entrance to border villages with their tractors so the authorities cannot enter. Yavuz said ISIS was controlling the illegal diesel trade and making money from it, but was not directly involved in all aspects. It prefers to use professional smugglers.
Yavuz said demand for the cheap ISIS diesel was growing in Turkey, where “trucks take the fuel from the border region to other parts of the country.” According to Turkish media reports, smuggled diesel sells for around $0.70 a liter (or $2.65 a gallon), while the official price in Turkey is more than $1.85 a liter ($7.00 a gallon).
Tanal, the opposition lawmaker, claims the smuggling itself and the lack of effective countermeasures on the Turkish side are a sign that ISIS enjoys continued support from the Turkish government. “There is cooperation,” he said. “If there wasn’t any, how can you close your eyes to the smuggling like that?” Tanal also stressed that Erdogan and his new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, refused to call ISIS a terrorist organization.
Ankara denies giving support to ISIS or other extremist Sunni groups fighting in Syria. Turkey has been pursuing what it calls an “open door” policy concerning refugees from Syria, taking in around 1.2 million people from the neighboring country since the uprising against Assad began more than three years ago.
Critics within Turkey and abroad say the Islamists have been able to use Turkish territory to bring fresh fighters and weapons into Syria and to rotate troops. In a report leaked to the press this year, the governor of the Turkish border province of Hatay described how more than 100 ISIS fighters arrived in the border town of Reyhanli in March to rest at a hotel for several days before heading back into Syria. Tanal, the opposition politician, said ISIS fighters had been treated in Turkish state hospitals.
Serdar Erdurmaz, a political scientist at Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep, a Turkish city around 37 miles north of the Syrian border, told The Daily Beast that Turkey does not have a lot of options in dealing with ISIS. Ever since ISIS overran the Turkish consulate in Mosul in June, taking 49 people there hostage, it has been clever enough, in Erdurmaz’s opinion, to use the captives to tame the Turkish government. “There are some wise guys in ISIS, they know Turkey’s situation, so they keep the hostages as long as possible.” One wrong move by Ankara could lead to the death of captives or their execution one by one, as we’ve seen recently with American hostages.
But despite that risk, Yavuz says Ankara must act to secure its border. “This is Turkish territory,” he said. “As a sovereign state, you have to do something.”