Al-Qaeda‘s Syrian wing is helping to finance its activities by selling the product of oilfields that once helped to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Up to 380,000 barrels of crude oil were previously produced by wells around the city of Raqqa and in the desert region to its east that are now in rebel hands – in particular Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda off-shoot which is the strongest faction in this part of the country.
Now the violently anti-Western jihadist group, which has been steadily extending its control in the region, is selling the crude oil to local entrepreneurs, who use home-made refineries to produce low-grade petrol and other fuels for Syrians facing acute shortages.
The ability of Jabhat al-Nusra to profit from the oil locally, despite international sanctions which have hindered its sale abroad, will be particularly worrying to the European Union, which has voted to ease the embargo but at the same time wants to marginalise the extremist group within the opposition.
In the battle for the future of the rebel cause, the oil-fields may begin to play an increasingly strategic role. All are in the three provinces closest to Iraq – Hasakeh, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa, while the Iraqi border regions are the homeland of the Islamic State of Iraq, as al-Qaeda’s branch in the country calls itself.
It was fighters from Islamic State of Iraq, both Iraqi and Syrian, who are thought to have founded Jabhat al-Nusra as the protests against the rule of President Assad turned into civil war.
Because of sanctions, Jabhat’s oil is largely shipped to thousands of home-built mini-refineries that have sprung up across the north of the country. The crude is distilled in hand-welded vats dug into the ground and heated with burning oil residue.
The Jabhat Al Nusra, a proscribed islamic militant group control the oil fields and cannot export due to sanctions, so this provides some cash flow to the rebel cause as well as much needed fuel for Northern Syria
It is not clear how much money is being channelled back to the group. But all those buying the raw product were aware that Jabhat was profiting.
“Jabhat do not ask for taxes or charges for this trade,” said one of them, Omar Mahmoud, from Raqqa province. “But we are buying the oil from them so they do not need to.”