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ISIS attacks on Libya: Why oil might not be its top goal

Islamic State fighters have stepped up their attacks on Libya’s oil facilities since two major political factions agreed last month to a UN-negotiated deal aimed at creating a unity government.

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    Firefighters trying to put out the fire in an oil tank in the port of Sidra, in Ras Lanuf, Libya, Jan. 6, 2016. Firefighters have extinguished two fires at oil storage tanks at Libya's Ras Lanuf terminal, but blazes continue at five tanks in the nearby port of Sidra after attacks last week by Islamic State militants, a Petroleum Facilities Guards spokesman said on Thursday.
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The Islamic State affiliate in Libya has been busy attacking the North African country’s vast oil facilities in recent weeks – raising concerns that the terrorist organization is out to seize another lucrative source of revenue, similar to the oilfields it controls in Syria and Iraq.

But in Libya, the Islamic State (IS) may have a different objective in mind as it blows up oil tanks, shells oil facilities, and attacks the towns where these facilities are clustered along the Mediterranean coastline, regional analysts say.

The group that has taken advantage of four years of fighting among rival governments and weakening national authority to build up its foothold in Libya may be out to deny a new unity government the revenues it needs to function and provide services.

IS, or ISIS as it is also known, may have its sights on developing its own oil revenues in Libya at some point down the road, analysts say. But right now, its chief goal is to keep Libya a failed state.

“The Islamic State in Libya faces a threat if the unity government is able to get on its feet and start providing services like security, so it may be intent on denying [the government] the money it needs to do that,” says Frederic Wehrey, a North Africa expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“I don’t buy the argument that they could convert these facilities into quick revenue sources for themselves,” he adds, “but we know from experience that disrupting oil facilities has always been an important part of [IS] strategy.”

IS fighters have stepped up their attacks on Libya’s oil facilities since the country’s two major political factions agreed last month to a UN-negotiated deal aimed at creating a unity government by mid-January. A national unity government backed by loyal security forces could take back control of the country’s oil facilities and get petroleum exports back on track, US officials and other experts say.

That may be exactly what IS is trying to prevent.

Last week IS fighters shelling the port cities of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf set a half-dozen large oil storage tanks ablaze, while car bombs detonated at checkpoints outside oil fields further disrupted access to the country’s oil facilities.

Libya’s oil production in 2015 was at best about a quarter of a peak of some 1.65 million barrels a day before strongman Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in 2011.

IS’s “failed state” strategy also was on view in a truck bombing attack last week that killed dozens of recruits at a police academy in the coastal city of Zliten, about 200 miles west of Sirte – the terrorist group’s headquarters in Libya. The Zliten academy was set to be the site of Western-funded training for security forces as envisioned under the UN-brokered peace plan.

Speculation has grown that the IS leadership in Raqqa, Syria, may be planning to consolidate its foothold in Libya as an alternative capital for  the group as international pressure has mounted against it in Iraq and Syria. IS declared its control of three “wilayats” or provinces, of the caliphate in Libya in November 2014.

Carnegie’s Mr. Wehrey says a number of factors suggest to him that IS is having a more difficult time asserting itself in Libya than it did in Syria  and Iraq. “Libya is a different animal in many respects,” he says. “For one thing, the sectarian cleavage isn’t there,” he says of Sunni Arab Libya. “From what we know they have had a hard time replicating the functions of a state.” The IS affiliate in Sirte has set up sharia courts, carried out  public  executions, and ordered women to comport themselves according  to group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.

As for tapping into Libya’s oil wealth, Wehrey says the terrorist organization faces a number of high hurdles, including a closely monitored coastline, destroyed pipelines, and a lack of other means of getting oil out. “They don’t have the trucks” that IS does in Syria and Iraq to smuggle contraband oil, he says.

But IS in Libya may be taking steps to change that. Reports are surfacing of IS recruiting petroleum engineers and other specialists from among the thousands of Libyans left unemployed by the turmoil in the oil sector. Wehrey says that eventually, if the international efforts to return order to Libya fail, the organization’s job postings might work.

“The strategy seems to be that economic despair will drive people to you, and it might be true,” Wehrey says, “though I’m still not sure where they’d sell their  oil.”

But other experts in terrorist financing note that a significant portion of IS  oil in Iraq and Syria is sold internally, and they say they assume IS in Libya would do the same.

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