The Islamic State (ISIS) is taking on recruits faster than anyone can keep up with, and it’s heading towards Libya’s oil crescent, eyeing billions of barrels that a country at war with itself cannot protect - even with U.S. air strikes.
In mid-December, the United Nations brokered a power-sharing agreement between Libya’s rival factions, but there is no chance of implementing this. That means there is no chance that the Libyan government can fight back the advance of ISIS. Things are about to get messy, and U.S. air strikes will put only a small dent in a big problem.
According to U.S. intelligence figures, there are an estimated 6,000 ISIS fighters now in Libya, headquartered in the town of Sirte, as Oilprice.com has reported in the past. From here, they control hundreds of miles of coastline. There is nothing in Sirte they want; this is simply a strategic base.
ISIS fighters have also been tracked down to Benghazi, but here they have not solidified control yet. Still, Benghazi is an important recruitment venue. More specifically, this is where it can combine forces with it radical brethren in the form of Ansar al-Sharia and other radical factions. Benghazi is where ISIS gets bigger. And its pace of recruitment is faster than anything we’ve ever seen before. It absorbs new radical factions wherever it goes. The more successful its attacks and territory grabs, the more successful its recruiting becomes. In Libya, the former prowess of Ansar al-Sharia has quickly waned. ISIS is more brutal, and more decisive. It’s either join or be killed.
ISIS’ ability to launch attacks is not limited to Sirte, which is just the staging ground, or even to Benghazi. It can attack pretty much anywhere using hit-and-runs and suicide bombings.
So what is it after? There is a multipronged strategy here. The first is to get closer to Europe. The second is to get closer to Africa. The third is to get closer to more oil revenues to fill quickly depleting coffers in Syria and northern Iraq.
The ISIS Oil Picture in Libya
There is no oil in Sirte, but ISIS was able to take control of this area because no one was really paying attention. The tribes here are loyal to Gaddafi, but they took a backseat to Ansar al-Sharia, which in turn took a backseat to ISIS when it arrived.
ISIS has largely been allowed to run amuck in and around Sirte because the raging civil war that pits two rival Libyan governments against each other has left the country incapable of fighting off the ISIS advance. But now ISIS is targeting Libyan oil installations—and this is what invites U.S. air strikes.
Last month, ISIS attacked Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which lie east of Sirte and beyond its area of control. Es Sider is an oil port, and Libya’s largest export terminal, with a capacity to export nearly 450,000 barrels per day. Ras Lanuf is a refining area. Ras Lanuf has storage tanks, and the tank attacked by ISIS was holding about 400,000 barrels of oil. The attack on Ras Lanuf was captured on video.
Both Es Sider and Ras Lanuf have been closed since December 2014—victims of the civil war that is largely a battle for control over the country’s oil wealth. They are perilously located right between ISIS-controlled Sirte and Benghazi in the east.
But ISIS has farther-reaching oil plans in Libya. It’s going after the producing fields in the southern desert.
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In a video, ISIS made it clear that it had no plans to stop at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf: "Today Es Sider port and Ras Lanuf and tomorrow the port of Brega and after the ports of Tobruk, Es Serir, Jallo, and al-Kufra."
When it gets a foothold in the southern desert’s oil crescent, this will be the point of no return.
ISIS has already secured the route to the “oil crescent”, which encompasses all the producing fields in the southern desert. It’s done this by taking control of the desert town of Nufaliya, which is about 50 kilometers from Es Sider.
At stake here is Libya’s 48 billion barrels of estimated reserves—the largest in Africa. The civil war alone has shut down over three-quarters of Libya’s production, which might be good for the current oil supply glut, but it’s very bad for Libya and regional stability.
US air strikes won’t likely be enough. ISIS has already cleared a path to the oil crescent, and without a functioning, unified government in Libya, there is no chance of heading them off effectively. Air strikes are but a bandage on a gaping wound.