With Recent Conquests, ISIS Turns its Eyes to Libya’s Oil Crescent
On June 4, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) confirmed that it had taken control of the coastal town of Harawa after negotiating a surrender with locals, following the withdrawal of militia forces that had been defending the town. With this latest conquest, the group moves within 50 kilometers of Libya’s oil crescent and the vital Sidra oil terminal and Ras Lanuf oil port, a primary Mediterranean transit hub for Libyan oil, of which seventy percent of the country’s proven reserves lie within the Sirte basin.
This operation has been brewing for months. In mid-February ISIS’s Tripoli Branch (Wilayat Tarablus) seized much of Sirte, a major coastal city, the town of Nuafilya, and threatened neighboring Harawa. To combat the ISIS advance, the Tripoli government sent the Misrata-based Battalion 166 to contain ISIS and retake the city.
However, after months of clashes on the outskirts of Sirte and reluctance or inability by Battalion 166 to launch an offensive into the urban center, ISIS forces succeeded on May 28 in taking the remaining Libya Dawn positions outside the city, including the al-Ghardabiya airport located south of the city. Following ISIS advances, Battalion 166’s remaining fighters retreated from the city’s environs except for the the power plant to the west, leaving the terrorist group control of the entire area.
Rumors from Harawa residents — who previously fought ISIS but were forced to negotiate a ransomed surrender after Libya Dawn forces withdrew — indicate that ISIS plans on continuing east towards the oil crescent. Additional unconfirmed reports indicate that ISIS forces demanded the surrender of Bani Jawad, the last town along the coast between Sirte and defended by the Oil Facilities Guards loyal to independent federalist leader Ibrahim Jadhran, the oil facilities previously withstood Libya Dawn’s attempts to seize it earlier this year. However, if ISIS managed to take the facilities and the oil fields to the south, it would gain a means to increase its own monetary assets through illicit sales of the oil, likely through smuggling.
In addition, seizing the oil terminals would also be a means of asset denial, preventing other elements in the country that depend on oil revenue to fill their coffers, furthering the deterioration of the country and allowing the terrorist group to take advantage of the situation. With recent developments, ISIS in Libya has the potential to not only gain additional strategic military advances, but now stands on the cusp of a new source of financing its terrorist operations both in Libya and even across the Mediterranean Sea.