ISIS Goes for Broke in Libya

DDG/ECHO - Demining Sirte

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Patrick Bury has worked as a Libya specialist since 2011. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and a PS21 Global Fellow.

Despite the announcement of a UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) on 17 Dec, the rivalry between the broadly Islamist government in Tripoli and its eastern rival in Tobruk has continued, with neither side ready to accept the new GNA just yet. Meanwhile, capitalising on the security vacuum in the centre of the country, last month we witnessed a significant increase in the number and intensity of ISIS attacks in Libya, seriously threatening the country’s already damaged oil sector and risking the prospect of socio-economic collapse if the group can maintain its current tempo of operations.

Kicking off its new ‘al-Qahtani’ campaign, on 4 Jan ISIS’s affiliate in the coastal city of Sirte – Islamic State in Sirte (ISS) – launched a major assault on the Libya’s largest oil terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf (which combined had an export capacity of over 500,000 barrels per day before they closed due to the ISIS threat) that began with a double suicide truck bomb attack on local Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) forces at Es Sider. One bomber hit the main military checkpoint at the entrance to the terminal, killing two guards, while the other struck an airstrip nearby in the first Libyan use of a tactic favoured by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. According to the Libyan National Army (LNA), this was a diversionary attack, and ISS then attempted to gain entrance to Ras Lanuf terminal 18 miles further east by assaulting it with 12 technical vehicles. The bombing of a telecommunications tower on 3 Jan in Ajdabiya – 130 miles east – which cut all mobile and internet networks in the town, and the attack on Es Sider airfield, were most likely attempts by ISS to slow the response of LNA and oil facilities guard reinforcements based in Ajdabiya. However, ISS were repelled by local PFG fighters and air strikes by what appeared to be jets from the Islamist Operation Dawn alliance operating from Misrata. The fighting left at least 12 dead, 25 oil guards wounded, and a 400,000 barrel oil storage tank ablaze. The next day, further fighting erupted south west of Es Sider. After suffering heavy losses (at least 30 confirmed killed but with the number perhaps as high as 150), ISS fired artillery shells and Grad rockets into the Es Sider oil tank farm, setting another tank alight.

With the fires at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider still blazing, on 7 Jan ISS struck again, this time further west when a water truck loaded with explosives detonated at the gates of a military camp in Zliten, 40 miles west of Misrata, killing at least 65 people, many of whom were police recruits,  in the worst terrorist attack in Libya since the 2011 revolution. ISIS’s Tripoli branch later claimed responsibility for the bombing. Worryingly, Zliten sources had reported a number of suspicious men arriving by boat in the days prior to the bombing. The town has been one of the locations for smuggling migrants to the Europe, and the camp was probably targeted because it was being used to train and deploy police and coast guard personnel to curb smuggling, indicating a potential alliance between human trafficking gangs and ISIS in the area.

Only three days later, PFG forces at the Zueitina oil terminal, 100 miles south of Benghazi, repelled an amphibious assault by pro-ISIS fighters in three boats. While it appears that the PFG received a tip off about the attack and were thus ready, the audaciousness of the attack, and, at 300 miles, its long distance from Sirte, is indicative of the lengths that ISS is willing to go to capture oil infrastructure. Meanwhile, on the night of 13/14 Jan an ISS explosion destroyed a length of oil pipeline near Maradah, 100 miles southeast of Ras Lanuf. The same day, the fires at the tanks at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider caused were finally put out, but not before 850,000 barrels had been destroyed in the fires. Worse was to follow.

On 21 Jan, ISS again attacked the Ras Lanuf terminal, deliberately setting another four storage tanks holding up to 2 million barrels of crude alight after they were again repelled by PFG forces. These fires burned until 24 Jan causing substantial damage and risking ‘environmental disaster’ according to Libyan oil officials. A large section of pipeline leading to the Es Sider terminal was also alight by the group.

Although an ISIS attempt to seize the eastern oilfields had been expected since late November, recent developments indicate an increase in its Libyan affiliate’s tactical capability and strategic complexity.  Clearly, the al-Qahtani campaign has seen a rapid increase in both the number and intensity of ISS attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure. Equally clearly, and far more worrying, is that unlike in Syria and Iraq, the group now appears content to destroy Libyan oil facilities if it cannot seize them. This fact is important as it provides information about the groups capabilities and its longer-term intent in Libya.

Firstly, with ISS’ total strength currently estimated to be about 3,000 – of which perhaps less than a third are available for operations at one time – at present it appears that they still lack the capability to concentrate their forces in order to seize a major oil facility outright. LNA and Operation Dawn airstrikes, backed by international actors such as France (who was likely behind airstrikes by unidentified jets on ISS in Sirte on 10 Jan: no claim of responsibility was made but this may well be to avoid both political blowback and further ISIS attacks at home), Egypt and Jordan, and intelligence feeds provided by US and Italian drones, have contributed to this inability to mass. This has forced smaller ISS forces to rely predominantly on surprise over strength, and airpower has frequently tipped the balance in recent clashes between ISS and the PFG/LNA.

While the latter have managed to hold on to Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, the prospect of further attacks in the area, and indeed on the still functioning Brega terminal 70 miles east of the terminals remains very real. Similarly, ISS could also strike towards the oil fields at Sarir, Messla and Nafoura, which account for about 60% of Libya’s current oil output, and which could prove harder to reinforce if ISIS launched a concerted attack. It is for this reason that the LNA has sent a 95-vehicle column to interdict any ISIS sally towards these fields, as an ISS attack in this area could also cut the oil pipeline north to the Hariga export terminal at Tobruk.

Nevertheless, despite the threat of further ISIS attacks, and the grave danger this now poses to Libya’s oil infrastructure, the fact that the group is happy to destroy these facilities points to its fundamental inability to seize and hold them. There are a number of reasons for this.

Most importantly, the sectarian divides that have helped the group prosper in Iraq and Syria do not exist in Libya, thereby denying the group mass appeal amongst the Libyan populace. Indeed, almost all Libyans and the various militias are staunchly against the group due its strong foreign fighter and Gaddafi-ist elements. Crucially, this limits both its support base and its freedom of manoeuvre. The local uprising against ISS in Sirte in August – and the minor attacks on the group in areas they control since then (an ISS commander was also shot dead in Harawa on 20 Jan) – indicate that even where the group do enjoy military superiority, locals are willing to contest this, despite the dangers. Indeed, ISIS central’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently dispatched a senior aide known as ‘Abu Omar’ to Sirte to tighten the groups grip on the city, which has caused friction with local commanders.

Secondly, the timing of the new campaign is telling, coming as it does as ISIS faces increasing military pressure in Iraq and Syria, and as consensus around a GNA is growing. ISS and its parent organisation know they face a major threat if the new government in Libya can begin to unite the militias against the common and pressing enemy. Therefore, denying the GNA – and indeed any of its rival governments – the revenues it needs to do so by destroying oil facilities appears to be the groups’ new strategy to react to recent developments. Such a long-term goal would also potentially create the kind of social and economic upheaval that could see support for the group rise.

However, the final element in all this is the oil infrastructure itself. Unlike their operations in Iraq and Syria, many Libyan fields have been closed due to the threat ISIS poses, while a closely monitored coastline, destroyed pipelines, and a lack of other means of getting oil out mean that the group would likely struggle to sell oil without the help of the local population. While the southern smuggling route does provide an option, this route is long, arduous, and ISS lack the trucks to use it at present. As a result of these three major factors, ISS’ campaign is indicative of their longer-term weakness as much as their short-term strength.

However, it is clear that Libya’s oil infrastructure in now facing an existential threat, and its destruction would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to replace. While it appears that the PFG and LNA forces in the Sirte oil crescent are able to hold their own at present, their longer-term sticking power will depend on reinforcement and resupply, and the knowledge that airstrikes are available if required. Should these fail to materialise, their morale could be threatened.

A concerted Libyan response is now clearly needed, but whether these latest attacks will provide enough impetus for the various armed forces to unite against the ISIS remains to be seen. Further attacks should be expected in the short term, with the threat to Brega a real worry. This knowledge has prompted strong indications that the West is increasingly likely to take decisive military action against ISIS in Libya. This would most likely include airstrikes and the deployment of special forces by the US, UK, France and Italy (all of which have conducted reconnaissance missions in Libya in recent months). Despite ISS’ longer-term weaknesses, such action cannot come soon enough if it is to save Libya’s oil facilities and protect the country’s long-term future.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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