Commercial Operations in Turkey: Assessing Exposure to Islamic State, Al Qaida, and Other Armed Groups In Iraq and Syria

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OVERVIEW

 

A review of Islamic State and al Qaida-related activity in Iraq and Syria provides insights on cities, banks, and business sectors in Turkey at greater risk of exposure to illicit commercial and financial transactions. Islamic State and other armed groups that control or profit from oil fields and oil trade in Syria and Iraq generate revenue from sales to Turkey-based consumers and middlemen, according to government and media reports. Turkey has also been identified as a transit point for foreign fighters and as a fundraising hub for relief operations that have been associated with al Qaida.

“To disrupt the market in oil derived from ISIL-controlled fields, we will target for financial sanctions anyone who trades in ISIL’s stolen oil… The middlemen, traders, refiners, transport companies, and anyone else that handles ISIL’s oil should know that we are hard at work identifying them, and that we have tools at hand to stop them….”

 

US Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David S. Cohen

ISLAMIC STATE – RELATED OIL TRADE

Turkey has been identified as a primary export market for oil trade in which Islamic State maintains a financial interest.

  • As of late 2014, up to 30,000 barrels per day of Islamic State-related oil was smuggled into Turkey, according to analyst estimates. In mid-June, a Turkish lawmaker estimated the daily quantity of Islamic State-related oil smuggled to Turkey amounted to 3.5% of Turkey’s consumption.
  • Islamic State reportedly earned up to $45 dollars per barrel sold in Turkey, or roughly 50% discount to oil spot prices. Islamic State generates multiple streams of revenue from cross-border oil smuggling including sales profits, middlemen fees, and transit taxes imposed at checkpoints.
  • Middlemen have brokered weekly supply contracts for thousands of barrels of Islamic State-related oil sold to Turkish companies, according to a BuzzFeed investigation from the Syrian-Turkish border.
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Smugglers transport diesel fuel from Syria into Turkey. (Source: Reuters)

Illicit fuel exports to Turkey have been purchased by smugglers in cash on the Turkish side of the border and then distributed from the border areas by smuggling networks into the interior of Turkey, according to regional reports.

  • Trucks are the primary conduits for transporting Islamic State-related oil to other parts of Turkey for resale or refining.
  • Oil has been transported as far as a 10-hour drive from the border into Turkey and sold for as much as twice the original purchase price, according to media reporting.

Islamic State-related oil smuggling appears concentrated in a number of key provinces and border cities in Turkey, according to a review of available public reporting. Banks that maintain operations in these areas could be at increased risk of exposure to this illicit smuggling activity.

  • Turkey’s Hatay province has served as the main transit point for Islamic State-related oil smuggling operations, according to public reporting. The border crossings close to the Turkish cities of Reyhanli and Antakya have been singled out.
  • Pipes have been laid at the border for oil smuggling into the Turkish cities of Kilis, Urfa, and Gaziantep, according to accounts from the border.
  • A number of Turkish banks with international correspondents maintain branch operations close to areas identified as oil smuggling hubs.
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Map of Turkish-Syrian border, including Turkey’s Hatay province, reportedly the main transit point for Islamic State-related oil smuggling operations. As of September 2014, the Turkish government increased surveillance at Syrian border crossings, according to reports. (Source: Google Maps)

Turkey-based buyers of Islamic State-related oil are reported to include factories, gas stations, and refineries.

  •  Factory owners in Turkey buy smuggled product because it is sold at below market prices compared to oil purchased in the legitimate economy, according to first hand accounts in media reporting.
  • Turkish gas stations have taken advantage of the inflow of illegal, below-market fuel, according to a number of reports. As of August 2014, the Turkish government targeted over 230 gas stations for dealing in smuggled Islamic State-related oil.
  • Turkey-based smugglers have facilitated the sale of Islamic State-related oil to a refinery in Turkey, according to a Middle East analyst at Chatham House.   In a September 2014 interview, a Lebanese military official was cited in a Tunisian publication stating that a refinery either owned or administered by the Turkish government had purchased Islamic State-related oil.
  • Smuggled oil benefits middlemen, consumers, and “a powerful Turkish elite,” according to a Western diplomat speaking to the New York Times in September 2014.

US-led airstrikes have diminished Islamic State’s capacity to produce oil, according to US assessments. Revenue estimates are still significant, however, despite reduced output and below-market pricing.

LOGISTICS AND SUPPORT ACTIVITIES

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Militants travel to the Syria-Turkey border in the Hatay province of Turkey. According to a UN Security Council report, at least 15,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years. (Source: The Guardian)

 

 

 

 

 

 

In September 2014, the US government designated a number of Islamic State and al Qaida-affiliated facilitators active in Turkey. Operatives associated with Islamic State, al Qaida, and other armed groups have run logistics activities from Turkish border areas — servicing battlefronts in Syria and Iraq, according to a body of public reporting. Banks in certain border cities may be at increased risk of exposure to supporters of Islamic State, al Qaida, and other armed groups, who seek to access or move funds at local bank branches or ATMs.

  •  Islamic State fighters treated Reyhanli, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, as a “shopping mall” for consumer goods and equipment, according to August 2014 reporting from the Washington Post. Other hubs for transit in the south may include the Turkish cities Akckale, Antakya, Kilis, Gaziantep, Oncupinar, and Hacipasa, according to a variety of reports.
  • Belgian citizens fighting alongside rebels in Syria were found to be accessing their European accounts through banks in Turkish border cities, according to a late 2013 investigation by European authorities.
  • A number of Turkish banks with international correspondents maintain branch operations in these strategic border cities.

In September 2014, the UN Security Council adopted a foreign fighter resolution demanding that countries take aggressive action to stop the flow of foreign fighters. As of late 2014, the Turkish government reports that it has increased surveillance of travelers at airports, bus stations, and border crossings as part of disruption efforts targeting foreign fighters.

  • A late September 2014 Guardian dispatch from the border area of Hacipasa noted a much less permissive environment for those seeking to cross into Turkey from Syria. Other relevant media reporting affirms that border controls have tightened, although smuggling activity persists.

FUNDRAISING AND RELIEF OPERATIONS

Fundraising material distributed by a charity in Turkey lists bank account details as well as WhatsApp numbers accepting donations for Syria.
Fundraising material distributed by a charity in Turkey lists bank account details as well as WhatsApp numbers accepting donations for Syria.

Relief organizations and fundraising campaigns operating out of Turkey have been tied to supporters of al Qaida and other armed groups. A number of these organizations openly list their Turkish bank account information on social media and websites. A number of the listed banks maintain correspondents with banks in the US and Europe. 

  • A Syria-based charity with a number of international branches, including in Turkey, has endorsed the Islamic Front––a coalition of armed Islamist militias in Syria. In August 2013, the charity sponsored a youth event that was co-sponsored by a number of organizations including a media group affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra and a public services organization that had been tied to Islamic State. Donation requests for the organization list a bank account with a Turkish bank.
  • In June 2014, a Syria-based charitable association disseminated a fundraising video acknowledging financial support from a Kuwait-based NGO and a Kuwaiti cleric – both of which have been designated by the UN and US for aiding al Qaida. The charitable association lists an account at a Turkish bank in its fundraising appeals.
  • In January 2014, Turkish counterterrorism police raided six offices of the Turkish relief organization IHH on suspected al Qaida links. The raid was part of a broader internal political dispute in Turkey. In June 2010, a super-majority of US Senators called for the President to designate IHH as a supporter of global terrorism. The donation page on the IHH website lists bank accounts with five Turkish banks.

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