Green Gold: How ISIS Is making as much money from wheat as from oil
As ISIS comes under increased attack in some of the region’s most fertile lands, Middle East agriculture researcher Eckart Woertz discusses how the militant group shrewdly chose to export a renewable resource.
Beirut. In 1980, the late, former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad famously declared that, “To lie amidst the spikes of grain or on the threshing floor is, in my eyes, worth all the palaces in the world.” By investing heavily in agriculture (and draining his country’s precious groundwater), he succeeded in making Syria a net exporter of wheat – a rarity in a region where most countries import about 70 to 80 percent of their food. The gains from this increased wheat production reached up to $350 million a year. His son, Bashar, the current president of Syria, carried on the tradition, with somewhat less success.
But the Assads aren’t the only ones who understand the market value of wheat. When the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) made its unprecedented expansion across Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, most of the land it grabbed was in the northeastern Jazira region – the heart of the Fertile Crescent, historically known as the breadbasket of Rome. By 2015, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, at least one-third of the country’s wheat production lay outside government control. (Syrian sources believe the number is much higher.) The biggest portion belonged to ISIS.
The armed group sold Syria’s wheat to Iraq, to traders in southern Turkey and even back to the government. Even Donald Trump knows that oil revenues are ISIS’ “main source of income,” as he pointed out recently. (Actually, the Pentagon stated back in February that oil wasn’t the group’s main source of revenue any more.) But analysts have suspected for a long time that the group may be getting a significant portion of its revenues from agriculture.