Agriculture as ISIS Funding Source

The academic journal Food Policy has published an article by Hadi Jaafar and myself about

“Agriculture as a Funding Source of ISIS: A GIS and remote sensing analysis”

The article is open access and can be downloaded here:


– Recurrent taxation of agriculture is a crucial income source for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) as extractive and non-recurrent income streams such as oil, ransom and confiscations show signs of dwindling

– ISIS has sustained agricultural production of rainfed winter crops (wheat and barley) despite the impact of conflict. Only irrigated summer crops (cotton) have suffered extensively

– We estimate that in 2015 ISIS might have derived income of $56 million from wheat and barley taxation alone. Additionally there is taxation further down the value chain of food processing and distribution

– The total value of estimated 2.45 million tons of wheat production in 2015 roughly equalled the annualized value of ISIS oil production during its height in late 2014 and early 2015

– Population in ISIS territory likely did not exceed 4 million in 2015, much lower than figures reported in the media of 8 million and more

– Iraq and Syria were wheat net-importers before the war; ISIS is not. It has an exportable surplus which it likely smuggles into the subsidized Iraqi food distribution system or to Turkey where prices are higher

– Agriculture in ISIS territory lives on bought time as supply chains for quality seeds and other input factors are disrupted. Food security and agriculture would need to have high priority in any post-ISIS reconstruction effort


Agriculture is an important source of income for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), which currently rules over large parts of the breadbaskets of the two countries. It has received limited attention compared to other sources of ISIS revenues such as oil, looting, ransom, foreign donations and various forms of taxation. We estimate winter crops production of wheat and barley in ISIS-controlled areas in both Syria and Iraq for the years 2014-2015 and irrigated summer crops production (cotton) in Northeast Syria. We show that remote sensing can give a credible estimation of agricultural production in the absence of statistics. With evidence from MODIS Aqua and Terra Satellites as well as Landsat imagery, we find that agricultural production in ISIS-controlled Syrian and Iraqi zones has been sustained in 2014 and 2015, despite the detrimental impact of conflict. After a drought in 2014 production was able to capitalize on improved rainfalls in 2015. First indications show that the winter grain harvest of 2016 in Iraqi territories of ISIS was significantly above pre-conflict mean and below pre-conflict mean in its Syrian territories. We also show how water flows along the Euphrates have impacted production. We estimate the revenue that ISIS can derive from wheat and barley production and the likely magnitude of an exportable surplus. Agricultural production gives the group a degree of resilience, although its economy is not sustainable in the longer run and could be affected by military collapse. Taxation of recurrent income streams such as agriculture will become more important for ISIS as its extractive sources of revenues show signs of dwindling. Beside non-grain food imports, agricultural production is crucial for its political legitimacy by ensuring food provision to the broader population. Food security considerations would require a high priority in any post-ISIS reconstruction effort and would need to include the rehabilitation of supply chains for agricultural inputs such as quality seeds and fertilizers.


Study on EU Energy Diplomacy

We have just published a study for the EU Parliament on the EU’s Energy Diplomacy: Transatlantic and Foreign Policy Implications.

The study deals with the potential of transatlantic energy cooperation in the wake of the US shale revolution, but also shows the persistent importance of MENA countries, and the Gulf in particular. Beside shared European interests there can be divergent strategies  depending on energy mixes, geographical location and policy preferences.

As the study was finished a month ago it also includes the UK, a non-European island in the Atlantic Ocean whose name I am still too annoyed and flabbergasted to spell out in full….


Energy security is increasingly occupying a top spot on the EU’s foreign policy agenda. The unconventional oil and gas revolution, OPEC’s supply response, increased global Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) trade, persistent concerns about the reliability of Russian gas supplies and the need to expand low carbon energies such as renewables to address climate change pose opportunities and challenges to European energy security. The EU has upgraded the issue with its flagship Energy Union communication and its EU Energy Diplomacy Action Plan. The United States has developed into a major exporter of Natural Gas Liquids and refined petroleum products as a result of its unconventional oil and gas revolution. It might develop export capacities for LNG and continues to be a major coal exporter. The mutual energy trade could expand if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) were concluded successfully. The United States is also a crucial partner of the EU for transport security and the protection of critical energy infrastructure. Against this backdrop, this study analyses opportunities and challenges of transatlantic energy cooperation in a changing global energy landscape.

Jadaliyya Articles on Oil for Food

Jadalliya, a leading webportal about Middle East issues, has published an article of mine on the Geopolitics of Gulf Food Imports that gives an updated summary of my book in light of recent publications about MENA food trade relations with tropical countries, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus in MENA countries and the role of states in international agro investments.

Jadaliyya has also featured my Oil for Food book in their New Texts Out Now (NEWTON) section.

For the Catalan speakers, here is an article of mine in Ara on low oil prices and Saudi Arabia’s regional role.

MENA Food Trade Relations and Tropical Countries

The academic journal Food Security has just published a special section about MENA Food Trade Relations with Tropical Countries. It contains papers from a conference in Barcelona that was organized in January 2015 by CIDOB and the OCP Policy Center.

The introduction with a short description of all papers is open access and can be accessed here.

“The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not only the largest oil exporter of the world, it is also its largest food importer. This import dependence will grow, given limited water and land resources on the supply side and population growth and more diversified diets on the demand side. In contrast to earlier food regimes, an increasing share of the MENA’s staple food imports such as corn, soybeans, palm oil, poultry, rice and sugar comes from tropical countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, where dramatic agricultural expansion has taken place. Other tropical regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa have looked to emulate such agricultural experiences, which are often based on large-scale and input intensive farming models. While such expansion processes have increased trade options of major importers such as the MENA, China and Japan, they have also had questionable ecological and socio-economic implications in the respective tropical countries.

Against this backdrop Eckart Woertz and Martin Keulertz set the scene in the opening article by analyzing food trade patterns of the MENA and the relative importance that tropical countries play in MENA food supplies. Their trade contribution has changed over different food regimes and now encompasses staple foods such as corn, rice and soybeans beside classical tropical export commodities. Woertz and Keulertz also discuss agricultural investment flows from the MENA to the tropics, associated political and socio-economic issues, a pronounced implementation gap of such investments and how they relate to MENA food security strategies. One of their conclusions is that food trading houses, storage strategies and brownfield investments in developed agro markets are more important as a trend than the widely publicized intention to acquire land in greenfield projects in developing countries.”

Special Issue on Land Acquisitions in SE Asia

The journal International Development Policy which is edited at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and is open access has just published a special issue on land acquisitions.

Beside theoretical articles it has a special focus on South-East Asia and the cultivation of industrial crops like rubber.

Martin Keulertz and I have contributed an article about States as Actors in International Argo-Investments where we compare the Gulf States with China and governments in agro exporter nations such as Brazil, Russia and Thailand.

New Book about Chinese Agro-Investments in Africa

Deborah Brautigam of SAIS at Johns Hopkins University has published a new book about Chinese Agro-Investments in Africa that is already available as e-book (as hardcover in November).

Like Oil for Food she points to misleading media perceptions and states a widespread implementation gap of Chinese agro-investments. She challenges four conventional wisdoms in particular:

a) Chinese land acquisitions in Africa have been limited.

b) Private actors have played a major role in Chinese agro-investments, the role of the state is less pronounced than commonly assumed.

c) There have been no grain exports from Africa to China. Chinese investments mainly target local markets. As far as food trade occurs it is rather the other way around, i.e. China exports food to Africa.

d) There has not been a large scale influx of Chinese peasant framers to Africa.

Food Security of Refugees in Iraq and Syria and the EU

I have just returned from traveling in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and CIDOB has published a short brief of mine on the Iraqi and Syrian refugee situation and implications for the EU.

Currently there are 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the country. This is half of the entire population and almost a fifth of the global refugee population.

Iraq now has 3.2 million IDPs, mostly from the ISIS provinces Anbar and Ninewa and 250,000 refugees from northern Syria. Beyond IDPs and refugees there are non-displaced Iraqis who suffer hardship, pushing the total tally of people who are in need of humanitarian assistance to 8.2 million.

The food security situation is challenging in both countries. IDPs and refugees engage in negative coping mechanisms like eating less and cheaper, spending savings, incurring debt and selling assets. As these strategies are reaching their limits the inclination to move on towards Europe is growing.

Refugees and IDPs constitute a considerable pressure on domestic services and resources in Iraq, at a time when oil price declines have led to budget shortfalls. Besides, there are security concerns and sectarian prejudice. Meanwhile assistance programs of the World Food Programme are severely underfunded. It is high time for the EU tho step in and fund emergency relief in the region, otherwise the refugee crisis will get worse.

Call For Papers: Africa, Latin America and the “Asian Century”

OCP Policy Center and CIDOB invite the submission of papers that explore Reconfiguration of the Global South: Africa, Latin America and the “Asian Century”.

The conference will be held in Barcelona on 27-29 January 2016. For the full call for papers click here.

Proposals should be submitted electronically to and no later than 30 October 2015.

Papers can deal with a broad based variety of topics that explore the mutual relationship and the positioning of the two continents in the emerging “Asian Century”, such as:

– Rise of emerging markets countries and what it means for an increasingly multilateral international system.
– New geopolitical constructions of the Global South: Asian vs. Western interests in Africa and Latin America.
– Theoretical approaches to democratization, transition and development.
– Trade and investment relations.
– Domestic growth strategies and development cooperation, particularly in infrastructure financing, energy, environmental preservation, agriculture and food security.
– Port cities and their role in facilitating exchange between the two continents.
– Maritime security and hard security issues.
– Free trade areas and regional association agreements.
– Migrant communities and cultural relations.
– Sustainable management of cities.

Food Security Situation in Iraq

This article by Hadi Fathallah for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers interesting insights on the current food security situation in Iraq, based on reports by international organizations like the World Food Programme, Arabic and western press reports.

The wheat harvest in ISIS controlled territory has declined, in contrast to civil servant salaries, producer subsidies from the central government in Baghdad do not reach ISIS territory anymore. The government has not budgeted funds for procurement of wheat from ISIS areas in its 2015 budget. The coverage of the Public Distribution System for refugees in non-ISIS territory is limited.

Food imports will need to increase at a time when oil prices have declined and more spending is directed towards military and security issues. The food security situation in Iraq is about to get more critical.