A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump on Bombing ISIS Oil Fields


Donald Trump says the U.S. is “just starting … as of two days ago” to heed his advice to “attack the oil” fields controlled by the Islamic State group. The U.S. has changed its policy, but it happened more than four weeks ago — not two days ago.

The U.S. had been conducting limited airstrikes against the terrorist group’s oil infrastructure for more than a year, but significantly stepped up the intensity of its attacks when it launched “Operation Tidal Wave II” on Oct. 21.

The terrorist group Islamic State — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed more than 100 people and wounded more than 350. The terrorist group, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria, is financed largely by revenues from oil fields in Syria. The Treasury Department estimates that the Islamic State generates about $500 million a year in oil revenues.

Trump, a leading Republican candidate for president, has made bombing Islamic State-controlled oil fields a centerpiece of his plan to combat the terrorist group since he entered the race in June. He made his latest remarks during a Nov. 16 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (at the 1:30 minute mark). He said something similar in a tweet he sent on Nov. 13.

Trump, Nov. 16: Here’s what I would do. And I’ve been saying this for a long time, I have been saying it to you. I would have — and now they’re just starting — if you remember when I said, attack the oil, because that’s their primary source of wealth. Attack the oil. People smiled, and they laughed and they thought it was a joke, and they thought it was funny. Now as of two days ago, they’re attacking the oil.

Trump was initially ridiculed by some for his call to “bomb the hell out of the oil fields.” We will get to that later. But it’s simply not true that the U.S. started “attacking the oil” just two days ago.

The U.S. had been conducting limited, and admittedly not very effective, airstrikes against the terrorist group’s oil infrastructure “since the very beginning” of Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the name of U.S. operations against the Islamic State (or ISIL, as the administration refers to the group), according to Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman. Operation Inherent Resolve started in August 2014.

As of Aug. 7, about a year into the fight with the Islamic State, the Defense Department reported that there had been 196 airstrikes against Islamic State-controlled oil infrastructure. For example, the Defense Department on June 8 announced that two airstrikes near Dyar az Zwar had hit two crude oil collection points.

But the Defense spokesman acknowledged at a Nov. 13 press briefing that the initial airstrikes were not effective.

Warren, Nov. 13: Well, we learned over time, though, by using our regular — our — our normal assessment of strike, assess, decide whether or not we need to re-strike — what we learned is that the strikes that we were taking were — against pieces of the oil system that were easily repaired or replaced. So in many cases, we — you know, we’d conduct a strike against some piece of the oil infrastructure, and then within — you know, 24, 48, 72 hours, the enemy have managed to repair that piece of infrastructure, and — and were back up and running.

As a result, Warren said, the U.S. military on Oct. 21 launched what it calls “Operation Tidal Wave II.” It was so named after Operation Tidal Wave, the World War II bombing campaign that was primarily aimed at Romania’s oil industry to hurt Nazi Germany.

Warren said the goal under Operation Tidal Wave II is to knock out the oil facilities for “maybe a year,” rather than a day or two, to inflict more financial harm.

The first reference that we could find to Operation Tidal Wave II was a New York Times story on Nov. 12 — a day before the Paris attacks. So it is possible that Trump only became aware of the stepped up airstrikes in the last few days. But they have been occurring since Oct. 21.

Reaction to Trump’s Plan

Trump also said on “Morning Joe” that his call for bombing Islamic State-controlled oil fields was met with derision. He said, “People smiled, and they laughed and they thought it was a joke, and they thought it was funny.”

That is largely accurate, although part of the reason was confusion initially over where exactly Trump wanted to bomb.

Trump entered the race on June 16, and in his announcement speech he said the Islamic State “took the oil that, when we left Iraq, I said we should’ve taken.” The next day he appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with George Stephanopoulos and had this exchange with the host:

Trump, June 17: They took the oil from Iraq …

Stephanopoulous: So you’d bomb the oil fields?

Trump: I would bomb the hell out of them. I’d bomb the fields.

It is true that the Islamic State took control of some Iraqi oil fields, but the majority of its oil revenue comes from Syrian oil fields. The Department of Defense estimates that about two-thirds of the Islamic State’s oil revenue comes from the Deir ez-Zor region, which is near Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.

On July 10, CNN.com published a story with the headline “Military analysts: Donald Trump’s plan to bomb Iraq’s oil fields not a good one.” The CNN article said two of its military experts — retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona and retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling — both said “there are many better ways to hurt ISIS than striking oil fields in Iraq — few of which ISIS actually controls.” CNN quoted Francona as saying, “You’re destroying the infrastructure of Iraq, you’re not really doing much to hurt ISIS. At some future point those oil fields will have to help regenerate Iraq.”

Politico listed “bombing Iraqi’s oil fields” as among one of Trump’s worst foreign policy gaffes, linking to the CNN story (which was updated in August to add more criticism of Trump).

In Trump’s defense, he advocated bombing oil fields “controlled by ISIS,” as he did in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN in July. That could include both countries, perhaps, but the majority of the strikes would be in Syria, where the majority of Islamic State-controlled oil fields are located.

Trump, July 8: I would take away their wealth. I would take away the oil. What you should be doing now is taking away the oil.

Cooper: What does that mean?

Trump: Bomb them. And I’ll tell you what I hate about this question. If I win – if I win. I didn’t want to answer this question. And I thought maybe I could go without answering it. Because if you look at the great General George Patton, or General MacArthur, I was a big fan of, any of this great general. They didn’t talk about what they did. And I said I hate it. In fact, if you remember when I said I have a plan, but I don’t want to talk about it. Everyone said, oh, he really doesn’t have a plan. So, I had to do it. But I hate talking about it. Because if I win they know I’m going to do it. If I win I would attack those oil sites that are controlled and owned by — owned. They’re controlled by ISIS. They’re taking tremendous money out.

On Aug. 11, Trump again reiterated his plan to bomb the oil fields in an interview on Fox News, “I say, cut them off where they’re getting wealth. Cut them off at the oil. … Take the oil, knock the hell out of them.”

A day later, Gen. Ray Odierno, who was U.S. Army chief of staff at the time, was asked at a press briefing what he thinks “when you hear Donald Trump say we should just moved in with our troops and take their oil, and bomb the Iraqi oil fields and take the oil away from ISIS.” Odierno said he disagreed with Trump.

Odierno, Aug. 12: See, here is the issue I learned over the last 10 years or so, is that there is limits with military power; and so we can have an outcome, but again, and so, the problem we’ve had — is do we achieve sustainable outcome, it’s about sustainable outcomes. And the problem we’ve had, is we’ve had outcomes, but they have been only short-term outcomes. Because we haven’t properly looked at the political and economic side of this.

It’s got to be three to that come together. And if you don’t do that, it will not solve the problem, and that is what I continue to look at.

So, I think for me, if you said to me, if we didn’t — right now ISIL is a direct threat, it’s imminent, and they’re getting ready to have an attack on the United States that could be devastating, that’s a different issue. That is a different issue. Then maybe we have to look at putting troops on the ground.

That is not where we are today. What we want to do is try to stop a — we have to stop a long group, a group that is potentially attempting to be a long-term influence in the Middle East, that is clearly promoting extremism and frankly suppressing populations in the Middle East. In order to resolve that, you need countries of the Middle East and those surrounding the Middle East to be involved in the solution.

Question: So, you disagree with Donald Trump?

Odierno: I do, I do. I do. Right now I do.

(We note that the question posed to Odierno said Trump wanted to “bomb the Iraqi oil fields,” although Trump talked about bombing Islamic State-controlled oil fields.)

Odierno did not discuss the location of the oil fields. His response largely reflected the military’s concern at the time about inflicting long-term damage to the oil fields and the need to have a “sustainable outcome.”

The military, however, seems to have addressed that concern with Operation Tidal Wave II — which is designed to inflict damage for one year, not just a few days.

“So we don’t want to completely and utterly destroy these facilities to where they’re irreparable,” Col. Warren said at the Nov. 13 press briefing. “So what we’ve done is we’ve used very precise carving, a very detailed analysis to strike certain parts of these facilities that will cause them to shut down for an extended period of time.”

That would dry up the money flow to the Islamic State without destroying the oil fields beyond repair, Warren said.

“So what we believe, is that by cutting off the oil supply, we can hasten the destruction of ISIL once and for all and bring some sense of normalcy back to the people there,” Warren said.

So it’s true that the Obama administration has changed tactics and is now conducting what Warren called “significant disruption operations.” But it wasn’t just “two days ago,” as Trump said.