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Tracking the declines in ISIS oil production

The Al-Omar oil field in Rmeilan, in northeast Syria, was captured from ISIS control by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on October 22, 2017. Photo: Hussein Malla / AP

Oil has been a key revenue source for ISIS, yet new data shows that production has steadily declined in areas under the group's control.

Historically, it has been difficult to get an accurate measure of ISIS's oil production. Past estimates extrapolated from chance observations at a small number of production sites — typically wherever journalists have had a source or intelligence documents have been seized. But that is like counting employees at a few McDonalds locations to draw conclusions about the number of workers across the fast food industry.

To arrive at a more precise figure, my colleagues and I developed a tool, as reported in a recent paper, that uses satellite imagery to evaluate in real time all 42 of the oil production sites once controlled by ISIS. The results show that production levels were approximately 56,000 barrels per day from July to December 2014. Production dropped to an average of 35,000 barrels per day throughout 2015, before declining further to approximately 16,000 barrels per day in 2016.

Why it matters: Our study shows that ISIS has been highly ineffective in managing its oil fields, limiting its revenue from these valuable assets and forcing it to fall back on taxation and extortion for funding. This data can also help to shape plans for rebuilding areas liberated from ISIS control by setting priorities for needed repairs and providing revenue projections for local economies.

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