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ISIS makes its fortune by selling oil from seized territory to its enemies, including the Syrian government it has vowed to topple and to Kurds in Iraq, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The official, Undersecretary David Cohen of the Treasury Department, is in charge of cracking down on ISIS finances. In remarks prepared for a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he said that ISIS "has amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace."
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Unlike al Qaeda, he said, ISIS gets only a small share of its money from deep-pocketed donors. It relies mostly on black-market oil sales, extortion and ransom payments, Cohen said. Estimates of how much ISIS makes selling oil have varied widely, but it is believed to be at least $1 million a day.
ISIS, which controls oil refineries in the vast territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq, sells oil to middlemen, including some from Turkey, who move it for resale, the undersecretary said. The regime of President Bashar Assad of Syria has made an arrangement to buy ISIS oil, and some oil from ISIS territory has been sold to Kurds in Iraq, Cohen said.
He did not specify who among the Kurds was buying. But the cooperation of Iraqi Kurds, along with the main government of Iraq and rebels in Syria, is a critical element of the American strategy to fight ISIS.
Last week, the State Department assembled 20 countries and organizations to talk about ways to dry up ISIS' money, but Cohen warned that it will take time.
"We have no silver bullet, no secret weapon to empty ISIL's coffers overnight," he said, using an alternate acronym for the militants. "This will be a sustained fight, and we are in the early stages."