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Before the West intervened in Libya in 2011 to depose former leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, opponents to the campaign warned that it could become a Somalia on the Mediterranean. It appears that this prophecy is coming true.
Since Qaddafi’s fall and the civil war that followed, brutal terrorist thugs and criminal syndicates have seized territory and exploited populations. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced internally or fled to neighboring countries. In Sirte, once a popular coastal conference spot, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—which relocated its headquarters there after it was gradually pushed out of Derna, a coastal city east of Sirte—has targeted whole tribes for their resistance to its new order. Regular executions and disfiguring punishments occur in public squares. Although anti-ISIS forces appear to be in the process of launching an offensive to retake Sirte, ISIS has successfully entrenched itself there over the past year or so. Foreign fighters continue to swell its ranks. Even if the group is eventually removed from Sirte, either by an umbrella of militias under the new, UN-facilitated unity government or by another powerful bloc, ISIS will continue to pose a threat to Libya from other bases scattered around the country. In such a scenario, ISIS might take hold of the neglected southwest province of Fezzan, as well continue operating around Sirte, since it has overrun the strategic town of Bin Jawwad, 19 miles from the Sidra terminal, the country’s largest oil depot, as well as a number of strategic villages between Sirte and Misrata.
ISIS thrives in Libya because of the country’s lawlessness. And no political or military leader there has been able to unify local militias effectively against the group. Moreover, most Libyan political figures lack the willpower to set aside their petty grievances and work together to face ISIS, even though it constitutes a primary menace to Libya’s future.
In fact, ISIS’ success depends on keeping Libya lawless, and one of its strategies to maintain the disorder is to block the unity government from generating revenue from its oil in the east. Libya relies on militias not accountable to the unity government to defend these sites, and ISIS can easily confront them to disrupt production at valuable installations in the oil crescent, such as its only operational port, the crucial Marsa Brega terminal.
ISIS is not the first group in Libya to target the country’s vast oil assets in order to manipulate Tripoli. Starting in mid-2013, the militia, Petroleum Facilities Guard, led by Ibrahim al-Jathran, blocked oil outputs throughout the eastern fields and terminals in order to prevent the General National Congress (GNC), the Islamist-dominated government in Tripoli, which Jathran perceived as corrupt, accessing and profiting from the oil. In late 2014, the GNC’s Libya Dawn forces launched Operation Sunrise to retake the area. The difference between ISIS and the other two groups is that ISIS has an explicit policy of deliberately damaging or destroying critical infrastructure to disrupt an important source of revenue for the government; and the group has shown little interest in using the oil to generate its own revenue.
Since ISIS officially installed itself in Libya in late 2014, it has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on oil sites, predominantly in the east. In early 2015, around the time the group began establishing a formidable presence in Sirte, it launched attacks on the oil fields in Bahi, Dahra, al-Ghani, and Mabrouk, and the damage has yet to be repaired. ISIS fighters reportedly executed a number of workers at Mabrouk and al-Ghani in February and March 2015, and the group has also claimed responsibility for attacks on infrastructure around the large Sarir field, including the pipeline connecting it to another terminal, Marsa Al-Hariga, in Tobruk. More recently, ISIS damaged infrastructure near the Sidra oil field during an assault in January 2016, and attacked the al-Beda field in April 2016. In early 2015, Libya’s National Oil Corporation decided to shutter these fields.
It is highly unlikely that the two main eastern terminals, Sidra and Ras Lanuf, will be up and running in the medium term, as they need extensive repairs that will require foreign technical expertise, which is in scarce supply at the moment, given the security situation, and vast expenditures, which the Libyan government cannot afford. The broken oil terminals and ports are crippling Libya’s economy. Over the last three years, Libya has lost $75 billion in revenue because of destroyed or damaged oil fields, according to the Libyan National Oil Corporation and the Audit Bureau, which oversees efforts to protect Libya’s wealth. Combined with low global oil prices, poor public financial management, and squabbles between rival oil corporations in Tripoli and Bayda, the persistent decline in oil revenues is exacerbating an already dire financial situation.
Although ISIS has been weakened, even losing control of Ajdabiya in March 2016, it still poses a threat to eastern oil sites through its base in Sirte and the surrounding towns including Nawfaliyyah, Hawara, and Bin Jawwad. Over the past few months, according to locals in the area, the group has also been trying to secure transport routes from the south to help it bring in reinforcements from its other north African and sub-Saharan affiliates. Continued disunity among the local anti-ISIS groups will undoubtedly undermine any efforts to permanently push ISIS away from the major oil sites. The leaders of these groups are caught up in their own power struggle, which has even inadvertently aided ISIS’ goal of disrupting oil revenue. Forces loyal to General Khalifa Hifter, a former Qaddafi official who later defected, have initiated an oil blockade at Marsa al-Hariga to prevent the unity government from benefiting from exports from the port. This partisan maneuver shows that even supposedly anti-jihadist actors such as Hifter are incapable of putting aside their petty differences to work together against ISIS. Furthermore, ISIS continues to have presences in western Libya near important oil fields such as Mellitah Oil and Gas complex and the Zawiya terminal. ISIS has also begun moving fighters south, where it has a presence outside Ubari, also near oil fields.
Revitalizing Libya’s oil sector is key to the country’s economic and political future. This is why the international community, as well as the various militias in Libya, must rally around the unity government in the next few months to fight ISIS in Sirte while the terrorist group is still on the defensive. It will also have to better safeguard the country’s oil ports and terminals against retaliatory attacks, particularly in the east. The West can help by deploying special forces to train militias protecting oil fields and pledging support to the unity government. For its part, the unity government should focus on strengthening its relationships with the militias guarding the oil fields and pipelines, both in the east and in the neglected southwest, in order to prevent ISIS from targeting those sites in the future. Western diplomats could sponsor a conference to mediate between Hifter and the unity government’s supporters to prevent oil blockades and coordinate actions against ISIS.
In the medium to long term, international partners, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, must help the unity government incorporate unaffiliated militias, which are currently unaccountable to official security services and are the main contributors to insecurity. Priority should be given to placing the Petroleum Facilities Guard under the Ministry of Defense or Interior and developing units with mixed regional representation. The professionalization of forces such as the Petroleum Facilities Guard could limit disruptions to oil fields in the future, whether it is from ISIS or other armed groups.
Concurrently, the National Oil Corporation and Libyan Central Bank need to formally reunify after the schism between Libya’s rival governments in 2014, and set realistic goals for future oil production after years of neglect and damage to the sector’s infrastructure. In late April 2016, the oil corporation laid out an ambitious plan to resume oil output at pre-2011 levels in the next several years, with the majority of sites returning to normal production within eight months. But these plans depend on ending the threat from ISIS. Libya’s financial institutions need to take such realities into account, assuming that the country will face low oil income for the next few years and make realistic budgetary plans.
Finally, the West must increase efforts to curb the flow of foreign ISIS fighters into Libya to prevent the group from launching larger attacks in the country in the future, including at oil sites. Over the last year, U.S.-led efforts to stop ISIS recruits from traveling to Syria and Iraq contributed to a 90 percent drop in foreigners joining the group in the Middle East, according to the Pentagon. Tactics such as countering ISIS financing and increasing pressure on foreign fighters can also be applied in Libya, where ISIS’ ranks are still growing.
These efforts will require persistent focus and a certain appetite for risk that the international community, especially Western countries, may not have. But with ISIS on the retreat in Benghazi, Derna, Sabratha, and possibly in Sirte, there is a window of opportunity to beat the group while it’s down by pushing for a coordinated anti-ISIS coalition in Libya to take action. The consequences of allowing the window to close will be dire.