BESASLAN, Turkey — This town on the Turkish-Syrian border is covered in trash. Residents refuse to let any outsiders — even garbagemen — inside. What makes Besaslan more guarded than the other grim towns lining what has become one of the world’s most dangerous borders sits at the end of a winding dirt road: oil.
The oil brings Omar to town weekly, huddling with grease-covered men to negotiate the purchase of faded, 17-gallon drums. A Syrian in his thirties, Omar was once a proud rebel in his country’s civil war. Now he’s a merchant in the trade that bankrolls the extremists who hijacked it: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The militants can make more than $1 million a day selling oil from fields captured in eastern Syria. But the way this shadowy trade works on the ground remains largely unknown.
On a recent Saturday, about 100 drums of oil were clustered at the center of a dusty lot. Omar got a price of $1.11 a liter, 42% cheaper than the standard diesel rate. This was the oil’s first stop in Turkey. After ISIS drilled it inside Syria, middlemen delivered it to the Syrian border opposite Besaslan, where it was pumped into pipes buried underground. On their end of the pipes, the traders in Besaslan filled new drums. Men like Omar bought the oil from the lot and delivered it to local Turkish businessmen, who sold it secretly to gas stations or set up illegal filling stops. While Omar negotiated, a wiry man used a hose to fill a hidden oil tank beneath a white minibus. Oil drums were also packed inside buses like this or crammed into cars like the one that brought Omar to Besaslan, a minivan fit for a soccer mom.
Many cash-strapped residents take part in the dangerous business — and spotters walked the streets, keeping watch for police. Men on motorbikes peered into the van’s tinted windows as it rolled back out of town toward the Turkish city of Reyhanli. The trip to Besaslan may have marked the first time a foreign journalist witnessed oil-smuggling at its source in Turkey since ISIS launched its shock offensive in Iraq this summer, sparking a global push to find and stop its revenue streams.
Turkey is a focal point in the new international fight against ISIS. Its porous, 565-mile border has been a gateway for the foreign extremists who fill the ISIS ranks — and with sky-high domestic fuel prices, it has been a key market for the oil that funds ISIS. In recent months, the government has vowed to crack down on illicit oil, and police have targeted smuggling routes, seizing oil drums and digging up pipelines. But the lot in Besaslan showed that the trade is still alive. Omar, who asked to use this pseudonym to protect his safety, also provided photo evidence of the Besaslan operation, snapped secretly on his smartphone — and a video that appeared to show oil-smuggling at a second location a short drive away.
Other sources involved in smuggling Syrian oil into Turkey said that it continued elsewhere along the border on a far greater scale. This testimony — from smugglers and businessmen who have done it themselves — provides a rare look behind the curtain of the trade that has helped make ISIS the world’s richest extremists. “Before, now, and in the future, ISIS is smuggling oil into Turkey,” said one of the businessmen involved, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “And the border guards close their eyes.”
Omar got his start by tying oil drums to a rope and hauling them across the border himself.
The Turkey-Syria border had been rife with oil-smuggling long before the uprising broke out in March 2011. As one Turkish smuggler remembered, all it took was the “permission” of the gendarmerie, the Turkish paramilitary force that controls the border, in the form of small bribes. A third-generation smuggler from a family with deep roots in the trade, he recounted filling cars rigged with hidden tanks at the cheaper gas stations in Syria and then driving back to Turkey when he was just a teen.
The trade erupted in the chaos of Syria’s war, which began in late 2011. Rebel groups targeted oil resources from the regime in battles often overshadowed by higher-profile fronts in the war — namely in the provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, where there were refineries and oil fields. Strapped for cash, the rebels smuggled some of the oil to buyers in Turkey, whose government was one of the Syrian opposition’s main backers, having already opened its borders to activists, fighters, and refugees. It was a booming business by the time Omar joined in early 2013, tired of struggling to feed his wife and kids on a fighter’s small salary.
In the evenings, Omar would receive a call from a commander in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the U.S.-backed rebel coalition, telling him to head to the Syrian side of the border. Over in Turkey, the gendarmerie would clear a path in the hills, lighting it with the floodlights on their armored trucks. Back in Syria, a small army of vehicles bearing oil drums would arrive: buses, pickup trucks, taxis. Omar would take a drum, tie it to a rope, and drag it 100 yards across the border to the vehicles waiting on the other side. He might repeat the trip 20 times before daybreak along with hundreds of fellow smugglers, he said. Other men hauled everything from cows to sugar and tea. “It was like a free zone,” Omar said.
If he took in $1,500 in a night, he would give $500 to the FSA commander and another $500 to the Turkish border guards. “You can’t really say that we are smuggling oil, because we take permission from the Turkish side and the Syrian side,” Omar said. “But since it’s under the table, we call it smuggling.”
Last fall, ISIS began turn to its attention from fighting the regime to taking territory from fellow rebel groups. As it spread like a parasite within the uprising, it focused on areas rich in oil. By January 2013, it controlled Raqqa, and soon after it was battling for control of the rebel-held parts of Deir Ezzor.
As ISIS gained new oil fields, Omar kept smuggling. He may have worked along an FSA-run border, but he knew he was buying the oil from middlemen who had taken it from ISIS's hands. The trade left a windfall on the Turkish side of the border. “You couldn’t step anywhere without stepping in oil,” remembered a smuggler in another town near Besaslan, sitting in a dark garage beside three large oil tanks. He was using the money to put himself through trade school. For ISIS, the profits were startup funds as it built up its self-styled caliphate, buying weapons and paying salaries.
Even with U.S. airstrikes now targeting its oil infrastructure, ISIS can make over $1 million a day from the trade, said Luay al-Khatteeb, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center who directs the Iraq Energy Institute. ISIS controls 60% of the oil-producing resources in eastern Syria, he said, plus a handful of marginal oil fields in Iraq. The group sells most of it within its own territory in Iraq and in Syria — which covers more than 12,000 miles, a size comparable to Belgium, and includes some 8 million people, a population approaching Switzerland’s. Desperate residents need the fuel to run their cars, generators, and bakeries.
Khatteeb estimated that even after meeting the demand of local refineries, ISIS still had 30,000 of barrels of oil to export a day, each selling for as much as $35. But its own rudimentary refineries weren’t enough to provide for its population, Khatteeb said — so much of the money went toward buying refined oil products from its neighbors, the kind of fuel that can power a taxi or armored Humvee. ISIS makes big profits smuggling oil in Iraq and selling it to the Syrian regime. But Khatteeb called Turkey its most important export market, accounting for “the bulk of the oil trade that ISIS requires to sustain its war machine.” ISIS crude oil is exchanged in Turkey for cash, Khatteeb said, or refined fuel.
ISIS surged to global notoriety in June, when it seized the Iraqi city of Mosul. At the same time, it seized 49 Turkish diplomatic staffers and their families from the consulate there. Not long afterward, according to Omar and other sources, the gendarmerie stopped most of the oil-smuggling on the border in Hatay province, where Omar was based. But Omar said it was still easy to work in Besaslan, staying on the Turkish side of the border and taking the oil from the pipes. He believed that the oil still originated in ISIS fields like before.
The photos from his smartphone show the process up close:
The dirt lot full of drums.
Smugglers loading the oil into battered vans.
And money changing hands.
The hose-like pipes are buried beneath the ground.
The pipes extend across the border, where they receive oil from Syrian land controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, the local branch of al-Qaeda, which was united with ISIS until the two groups split in a power struggle early this year — and has likewise been the target of U.S. airstrikes.
In early October, Omar shot a cell phone video that appears to show another type of smuggling underway. It shows a parade of men carrying oil drums across the border in broad daylight. Omar said he took the video a short drive from Besaslan, on Turkish land, opposite the Syrian border town of Atmeh. The gendarmerie occasionally open the border to let thousands of oil drums enter from Syria in a single night, Omar said. He said the video — which couldn't be verified — shows the tail end of the process: the men walking clusters of emptied drums back across the border and into Syria.
“If I had gotten there earlier, I could have shown you thousands of barrels,” Omar said.
Though Omar profited from the oil trade, he said he wanted it to end, and that is why he spoke to BuzzFeed News: It was the worst example of a wartime pillage that has stripped Syria of everything of value, from scrap metal to precious artifacts. “I just want to show the world what they are doing to my country,” he said.
A 40-minute drive from Besaslan, the ancient Turkish city of Antakya has crawled with the business of Syria’s war since it began. In his sunlit office there, the businessman who claimed that ISIS continues to smuggle oil into Turkey said he’d engaged in similar deals himself. He owned stakes in myriad companies, he said, ranging from energy interests to makers of hair dye. An aging man in black sweatpants and a fleece, he invited his guests to select gifts from a box of hairbrushes that another of his companies made. He said he had purchased oil from both Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA but not ISIS. “They don’t care about the revolution. They just want to earn money,” said the businessman, who has been given the pseudonym Yusuf here.
Yusuf said he had bought oil from low-level sellers using makeshift pipelines like the ones in Besaslan. He had also bought it in bulk, he said, receiving oil from Jabhat al-Nusra in trucks that crossed into Turkey at an official border post, with the gendarmerie paid off to let as many as 300 pass in a day. He then sent the oil to a city in Turkey to be refined, he said, though he declined to detail where it went next. “I know the people in Besaslan. They are poor people. They are just carrying the oil and giving it to the buyers, and sometimes they sell it in gas stations here in Turkey,” he said. “In other places there are bigger people, and the gendarmerie can protect them.”
He added: "The border is like 550 miles, and they are smuggling oil from everywhere,” meaning territory held by ISIS and other rebel groups alike.
Sipping coffee in his office, Yusuf produced a contract. He said it showed the kind of oil deals ISIS is pushing for in Turkey now. The contract proposed an agreement between Yusuf, acting on behalf of a Turkish company, and a Syrian middleman acting on behalf of ISIS. It stated that ISIS would sell 3,000 158-liter barrels of oil to the Turkish company each day for a week, for a price of $45 per barrel, and that from there the quantities could increase "when both parties are satisfied."
The contract was unsigned, and Yusuf said he had declined the offer — not because of his dislike of ISIS, he said, but because he didn’t like the deal. He asked that his ISIS counterpart not be contacted about the contract — making it impossible to verify. “If you call him about this, he will kill you,” Yusuf said, addressing a translator, “he will kill (the journalist), and he will kill me.”
But Yusuf did want to work with ISIS in another kind of trade: the ransom of foreign hostages. The freewheeling business of ISIS’s oil seemed to attract the same shady characters as the business of its prisoners. European governments have paid multimillion-dollar sums to retrieve their citizens from ISIS's hands — and Yusuf thought that facilitating a deal using his ISIS contacts would net him a sizable commission. From his office, he called the same ISIS middleman listed on the oil contract on his cell phone. “I don’t want to do this oil business with you. But I want to work with the journalists,” Yusuf said, referring to Western journalists imprisoned by ISIS.
Another businessman based in the Turkish city of Gaziantep also recounted a deep involvement in Syria's illicit oil trade. He’d owned millions of dollars worth of gas stations, oil refineries and pipelines in Syria — and he had used these resources in oil deals with the FSA. But ISIS commandeered much of this infrastructure early this year, he said. He believed ISIS now used it as part of its sprawling oil trade — and that despite the recent crackdowns, it continued to smuggle oil into Turkey on a large scale. “It’s a long border, and there is always a window for something,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Smuggling oil into Turkey was lucrative for ISIS in several ways, the businessman added. It turned profits from the oil it sold, the fees it charged to middlemen, and the taxes it collected at any checkpoints through which the oil passed. “So they are taking money both ways — for wholesale and for transportation,” he said.
According to one veteran smuggler who said he brought oil from ISIS territory into Turkey until recently, and who asked to use the nickname Wiyam, the transport fees alone doubled the oil’s price by the time he received it at the border. The ISIS militants were deadly serious about the business, he added — and dealing with them almost cost him his life.
When Wiyam began smuggling oil in the Syrian border city of Tel Abyad, before ISIS took control, it was as simple as piping the oil from Syrian trucks into Turkish ones at the official border gate, he said. “It was so easy.”
After ISIS took Tel Abyad early this year, Wiyam pledged his allegiance, happy for the chance to work under its name. "Because the ISIS name is terror. It's so powerful," Wiyam said. "But at the same time I was afraid to make any mistakes."
Wiyam later learned that ISIS wanted him to stop his work — because, he believed, it had an oil-smuggling operation of its own. “They have contacts in Turkey,” he said. When he and some colleagues continued smuggling in secret anyway, Wiyam said, ISIS caught and executed several of them, and he fled to Turkey.
Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, said that southern Turkey’s long smuggling history is likely to blame for some of the persistence of the illicit oil trade. “You have preexisting smuggling routes that thrive at least in part on corruption, and they have become more active because there’s more money involved,” he said.
Another factor might be the Turkish government’s priorities. While it is opposed to ISIS, it seems more concerned with two other enemies in Syria: the Kurdish militants operating along the border and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “The Turks do fear ISIS. They see it as a threat. But their primary objective in Syria remains ousting Assad,” Cagaptay said.
An official with the Turkish government, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter with the press, said the scale of ISIS’s oil trade in the country had been “very much exaggerated.” He blamed local corruption for the smuggling that did exist. “This has nothing to do with the state,” he said. “The U.S. has big problems on the Mexican border as well. There are problems on any border.”
He added: “Assad has been buying ISIS oil for two years now. He has been funding ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra by buying their oil. And no one says anything about it.”
In an emailed statement, officials with the Turkish energy ministry, who declined to be named, said the government “has zero-tolerance for illegal cross-border activities and employs forceful and ongoing measures to prevent oil-smuggling, particularly in the border areas.”
The statement added: “Recently, absence of political authority in Syria and parts of Iraq is the main reason of increased smuggling. The rise of [ISIS] has further deteriorated the situation on the Iraqi and Syrian sides of the border. The burden has fallen exclusively on Turkey to confront the smuggling activities.”
It acknowledged that the the border in southern Turkey had a long history of oil smuggling, but said Turkey has stepped up policing since the outbreak of the Syrian war. The two-page statement detailed additional measures that Turkish authorities had taken to crack down on the smuggling of late. In the first seven months of this year, it said, Turkish authorities had intercepted 5.3 million gallons of smuggled oil along the Syrian and Iraqi borders — a nearly 400% increase from the same period in the previous year. Between Sept. 5–11 alone, it added, Turkish authorities intercepted 3,318 gallons of illicit oil and 7,546 feet of pipe used for smuggling it.
"If there happens [to be] some sort of oil smuggling between the Syrian and Turkish borders, the reason is the challenging task of controlling a border more than [500 miles]," the statement added. It said Turkey regularly exchanged information with the U.S. and other allies on the region's illicit oil trade and that "no intelligence or data has been submitted to Turkish authorities testifying to any kind of involvement of [the] Turkish State and/or officials in cross-border oil smuggling or oil/refined oil products sales or purchase.”
If credible evidence emerged that the gendarmerie had turned a blind eye to oil-smuggling, the statement concluded, the government “will definitely take necessary actions to investigate.”
A short drive from Besaslan, a stone’s throw from Syria, oil drums were stacked against the wall of a cow pen. After traveling to Besaslan and negotiating with the traders there, this is where Omar headed next: one of the black-market filling stops where he brings the oil. This time, he’d agreed to sell it to the owner of the minivan that drove him through Besaslan, a husky 28-year-old Syrian who worked as a driver to support his family living in a refugee camp. The man bought about $50 worth, just enough to fill his tank.
He stuck a piece of hose into a tank the size of a golf cart and began to suck the other end with all his might, using his lungs to get the oil flowing like a human pump.
The driver huffed on the hose for more than 10 minutes as he worked to siphon the oil, swallowing some accidentally from time to time and then stumbling around the cow pens, gasping as oil dripped from his beard.
His mouth on the pipe, he finally got the oil flowing, and he poured it into a rusty can.
He tipped the can into the van’s gas tank, then rocked the van furiously to help it go down.
“I have oil right now from here to here,” the exhausted driver finally said, pointing from his neck down to his chest.
Omar stood to the side, arms folded behind his back. A herd of cows walked past and into their pens. They were just back from Syria, where farmers took them to feed on the grass — another small part of the pillage. “All things are coming from Syria right now — it’s the mother of the world,” Omar said. He repeated this several times: “Syria is the mother of the world.”
With additional reporting by Munzer al-Awad and Zaher Said in Turkey.