Using satellite imagery, a team of researchers led by Princeton University and the World Bank analyzed 42 oil production sites controlled by ISIS across Syria and Iraq from 2014 to 2016. They measured the volume of radiant heat produced by gas flaring at all production sites. Photo: Jacob N. Shapiro. (Click image for clearer view of map)

The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, popularly known as ISIS, took over swaths of the two Middle Eastern countries beginning in 2014. They spread quickly through extreme terror tactics and authoritarian rule, quickly controlling cities like Fallujah, Raqqa, Mosul, Tikrit, and beyond.

But the abundant oil production they assumed control over in their fanatical war of aggression quickly slowed to a trickle under their rule, according to satellite research conducted by experts from Princeton University, and the World Bank, among others.

Now, with ISIS in retreat three years later, the agencies have released a report that verifies that the fundamentalist state has come to finance its war through taxes, extortion, or through numerous illegal means instead of through the precious oil resources. 

The satellite imaging observed 42 sites for their oil production (34 in Syria, eight in Iraq), and watched for a tell-tale sign they were in use: the flaring of methane byproducts. The frequency and level of heat produced by the flaring is caught by detailed aerial imagery, and can provide estimates of overall production.

The detections were made by multi-spectral detailed images from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite, run by NOAA and NASA.

The production for the study period peaked in mid-2014 – and then plummeted over the short two years of ISIS control, they conclude.

Oil extraction fell to less than a third of its previous levels by 2016 – from 56,000 barrels per day to 16,000 barrels, they find.

Because of the tumultuous local economy, ISIS’s lost revenues from the decreased production are not clear. But Jacob Shapiro of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Quy-Toan Do of the World Bank conclude the income is likely to have decreased from $42 million to $12 million per month, assuming they could get $25 per barrel. (The world market cost has been double that for an extended period of time, by comparison).

Some of the satellite results were confirmed by ground-truth verification. For instance, an oil field outside the city of Kirkuk was under ISIS control for just about one year before it was set on fire by ISIS for tactical purposes, and then slowed its workings. The area was retaken late in 2015, and the sequence of events – and the oil losses – were verified by troops.

The report points out that U.S. Army special forces killed a senior ISIS leader known as Abu Sayyaf on May 15, 2015. That person was known to American forces to have directed the Islamic State’s illicit energy operations, including oil and gas. That killing may have impacted the precipitous decrease of the operations until ISIS lost control of the crucial wells amid their string of defeats.

ISIS has mostly remained secretive to the outside world – but with the advent of satellite and other technology, like smartphones, some of their apparent war crimes have been known to the wider world. For instance, the international community is attempting to document the genocide suspected of the group, as well as the destruction of numerous archaeological and historical sites

The World Bank also announced last week that it had approved $400 million in assistance to rebuild infrastructure and public services in the areas liberated from ISIS control, they said.