Terrorist Targeting of the Libyan Oil and Gas Sector
February 27, 2015
While the hydrocarbons sector in Libya has been the focal point of social unrest and political violence ever since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in 2011, it is only in the last two months that Libya’s oil sector has been targeted by jihadis for the purposes of terrorism. On the one hand, this development is due to the changing security landscape in Libya. On the other hand, it may be the influence of a report released in December 2014 by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group, the Mourabitoun, exhorting jihadis to attack oil installations and providing a “how-to” guide based on his group’s own experience attacking the Tigantourine gas facility at In Amenas, Algeria in 2013. What this development means, though, is that not only are competing political groups in Libya fighting for control of Libya’s hydrocarbons sector, but there now appear to be jihadis bent on destroying it.
The Importance of Libya’s Oil and Gas Sector
It is hard to overstate how important the oil and gas sector is to Libya. Prior to Qadhafi’s collapse and for several stretches since the February 17, 2011 revolution, Libya was able to produce as much as 1.6 million barrels per day. It no longer produces anywhere near those volumes, but even so, oil revenue remains absolutely critical for Libya. Hydrocarbons receipts account for 80 percent of GDP, 95 percent of export revenues, and 99 percent of government revenues. Oil revenue pays for Libyan cereal imports, which account for 90 percent of Libya’s cereal consumption and for public sector salaries, which account for more than 80 percent of the workforce. Without oil there are no jobs. Without oil there is no food. Without oil there is potentially no Libya.
Holding the Hydrocarbons Sector Hostage for Political Gain (2012-2014)
During the period from the appointment of the National Transitional Council in 2011 through the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012 (and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government) to the election of the House of Representatives in 2014 (and Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s government), a pattern of social unrest and political violence targeting the hydrocarbons sector emerged. After more than forty years of Qadhafi’s quixotic rule, Libyans had no experience with representative political institutions. As a result, political institutions were largely unresponsive to their constituencies’ needs. But communities with grievances learned that they could compel the government in Tripoli (and later Tobruk) to acquiesce to their demands by taking oil and gas sector facilities hostage.
The goal was not to capture a facility’s revenue or damage it, but rather to deprive the government of revenue, and thereby make the government accept the group’s demands. Instances of groups with social or economic grievances blockading or occupying oil and gas facilities abound from 2012 until 2014, including protests at the Arab Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO) in Benghazi, Mellitah Oil & Gas in Mellitah, Zawiya Oil Refining Company, the Sharara oil field, and el-Feel oil field. National Transitional Council chief Mustafa Abdeljalil was the first to cave to this tactic, thereby creating the moral hazard that led to this trend’s growth. Abdeljalil’s successor Zeidan followed suit. And more recently, so has al-Thinni.
This tactic culminated in separatist leader Ibrahim al-Jadhran blockading Libya’s four largest oil export terminals in August 2013 in order to force the government in Tripoli to accept his demands, which included hydrocarbons sector revenue sharing and autonomy for eastern Libya. The demands were excessive, and with the GNC in Tripoli unable to meet them, al-Jadhran tried to market oil he had stolen. When he was stopped from doing so, he ended his siege.
Competing for Control of Libya’s Hydrocarbons Sector (2014-2015)
Jadhran’s failed gambit, along with political developments in Tripoli, put Libya on a new path that has led to a new and different politicization of the hydrocarbons sector. Although opposition against Zeidan was mounting prior to al-Jadhran’s attempt to market stolen oil, it accelerated Zeidan’s downfall and the High Electoral Commission rushed forward with July 2014 elections to replace the GNC with a new House of Representatives (HoR). Elections were held in most electoral districts (but not all) and voter participation was low. As a result there were questions about the HoR’s legitimacy even before it was sworn in. With opposition to it intensifying and the security situation in the capital teetering, the HoR was forced to meet in the far eastern city of Tobruk. Meanwhile, the dissolved GNC reconvened in Tripoli, ruled that the HoR was illegitimate, and reestablished itself as Libya’s sovereign government. By year end, Libya had two governments, one in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk, and both were relying on hydrocarbons revenue channeled through the Central Bank of Libya. But the situation was unsustainable – one or the other government was going to have to deprive the other of oil receipts.
In fact, both governments appointed their own hydrocarbons sector management. The HoR dissolved the Ministry of Oil and Gas and gave control of the entire sector to the National Oil Corporation (NOC), appointing its own NOC chairman. At some point in the future, he would be based at Ras Lanuf, but for the moment he was confined to makeshift offices in Tobruk. The revived GNC in Tripoli, however, maintained the Ministry of Oil and Gas and appointed a new minister. It also named its own NOC chairman who operated out of the NOC’s headquarters in Tripoli. GNC and HoR-allied forces have also begun to physically fight over oil sites, including a December assault on the Sidra and Ras Lanuf facilities. The goal is no longer to simply hold facilities hostage to compel the government to act, but it is to in fact hold the facilities to control the rent to support this or that government.
The new fight has not, however, completely displaced the older tactic of leveraging the oil and gas sector to get grievances satisfied. In February 2015, protestors shut down Marsa Hariga, one of Libya’s few operating oil export terminals, because the Interior Minister in Tobruk proposed dealing with the GNC. The protestors wanted the Interior Minister dismissed, which is precisely what happened. And as soon as it did, the port reopened.
Jihadi Violence and the Sector’s Destruction (2015- )
Libya’s hydrocarbons sector is now being targeted in yet a third way. In early February 2015, a group claiming allegiance with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked the Mabrouk oil field, operated by an NOC-Total joint venture. In a departure from previous targeting of the oil and gas sector, the attackers killed up to 12 individuals, looted the facility, and took seven workers hostage. In addition, they corralled roughly 50 Libyan employees, lectured them about Islam, and then released them. Ten days later, Mabrouk was attacked again and there was a simultaneous attack on the Bahi Oil field operated by an NOC-Oasis joint venture. (Oasis is a consortium of U.S. oil companies consisting of Hess, Marathon, and ConocoPhillips.) The following day a pipeline connecting the Sarir oil field (operated by AGOCO) to the Marsa Hariga terminal was bombed, causing an explosion that forced the field to shut down. The attack was similar to a late January attack on an Egyptian gas pipeline claimed by the ISIL-allied Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. All four Libyan incidents appear to be terror attacks and as such are a significant departure from previous attempts to leverage Libya’s hydrocarbons sector for political purposes. None of the attacks sought to capture or control oil and gas infrastructure. The intention was to destroy it.
In part, the emergence of jihadi violence in Libya’s oil and gas sector is symptomatic of the rise of jihadi violence in Libya in general. Violent Islamist groups that embrace salafi jihadi views to varying degrees have been active in Libya since mid-2012. They subsequently took advantage of the intensifying civil war to entrench themselves, particularly in the eastern city of Darna where some groups pledged allegiance to ISIL. With Tobruk and Tripoli pre-occupied with fighting one another, jihadi groups have been able to act with increasing impunity.
The jihadis’ targeting of the hydrocarbons sector may also be due to the arrival in Libya of older jihadi groups with better operational experience. In particular, the Mabrouk attack was allegedly carried out by the Tarek ibn Ziyad Brigade. The brigade was formed in 2007 as part of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and was active in the Sahara, drifting between Niger and Mali. Pressure from two French military operations in Mali (Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane) may have pushed the brigade to find a more accommodating environment in lawless Libya. The group has a history of attacks against extractive industry facilities, including the 2010 attack on Areva’s uranium mine in Niger during which it captured seven hostages.
A final driver for jihadi attacks against the Libyan oil and gas sector may be a December 2014 report written by members of the Mourabitoun, the group that undertook the unprecedented January 2013 attack on the Tigantourine gas facility in Algeria. The report is presented as an “after-action report,” detailing target selection, how the attack was planned and carried out, and what went wrong, all with the goal of encouraging jihadis to conduct similar attacks.
In his foreword, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Mourabitoun’s leader, makes clear his hostility toward the oil sector, blaming injustices in North Africa on international oil companies and the governments with which they work. Later, the report explicitly states that the attack was carried out for the sake of jihad and not to advance mere “social demands” like employment opportunities, higher wages, or environmental concerns associated with the extractive industries. In the foreword, Belmokhtar explains that Tigantourine was chosen because of its “strategic, economic, and political value,” and that the timing of the attack was predicated on “the largest presence of Western managers and experts on the site.”
The report’s purpose is clearly to help other jihadi groups carry out similar attacks. It includes references to pre-attack planning, pre-positioning assets, training troops that will participate in the attack, and lying in wait at a pre-determined location to launch the attack. According to the report, the group engaged in several phases of reconnaissance and the group’s members penetrated “the site from the inside in order to determine its actual configuration, its security…and shift changes.” In the discussion of the attack’s goals, it is plainly stated that one of the objectives was to destroy the facility and, among the “lessons learned,” the report acknowledges that the attackers should have used remote detonators to compensate for a lack of manpower. The report also cautions others who would undertake a similar operation that having hostages is not sufficient to deter a military assault and that other defensive measures should be implemented alongside holding hostages.
From the very outset, the report states that its purpose is to encourage further such attacks and it was written “for the benefit of moudjahidin on all fronts and what may be gleaned from [the Tigantourine] experience in the future.” The report concludes with an afterword by the jihadi ideologue Akram Hijazi who lists ten of the operation’s benefits, including that it gave jihadis a “real-life” example of an operation that can be “replicated.”
Implications for the Future
The jihadi threat to Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure is grave. The social and political protests that have targeted the sector need the sector to continue to be successful in order for their protests to be successful – targeting a moribund sector is unlikely to pressure the government to meet their demands. Likewise, the rival governments battling one another for control of the hydrocarbons sector need the sector to be successful because the future viability of whoever wins depends on it.
The jihadis, though, are seeking to destroy the sector. For multiple reasons, jihadis in Libya simply cannot take control of the hydrocarbons sector the same way that ISIL has benefited from oil infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. In Libya, the sector is too vast, the group is too small, and markets are too far away. Instead, Libyan jihadis view the sector as evidence of a foreign and corrupting presence in their midst that needs to be removed. And the Mourabitoun’s report shows them how to do it. After all, it claims that after the Tigantourine attack “the employees of dozens of oil companies throughout the Algerian desert suffered from a state of fear and terror…with thousands of employees leaving Algeria within 72 hours…as if they were attacked by an army and not [just] a brigade.” The risk here is that not only will jihadi attacks on hydrocarbons infrastructure accelerate in the coming months, but that whenever the warring factions in Tobruk and Tripoli finally decide to lay down their weapons, the oil and gas sector upon which Libya depends for its very existence will be in ruins.
Dr. Geoff D. Porter is an assistant professor with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In addition, he is the founder and president of North Africa Risk Consulting. He specializes in political stability, violent non-state actors, and the extractives industry in North Africa.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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 Ibid. p.8.
 Ibid. p.51.
 Ibid. p.18.
 Ibid. p.20.
 Ibid. p.26.
 Ibid. p.20.
 Ibid. p.43.
 Ibid. p.48.
 Ibid. p.10.
 Ibid. p.62.
 Kate Brennan and Keith Johnson, “The Islamic State of Libya Isn’t Much of a State” Foreign Policy, 17 February 2015