TIME Libya

ISIS Allies Try to Cut off Libya’s Oil Revenue

A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight ISIS militants near Sirte March 15, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic—Reuters A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight ISIS militants near Sirte March 15, 2015.

The militants are trying to undermine opponents as the country descends further into chaos

A series of attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Libya’s oilfields is threatening to further undermine chances of stability in a country gripped by a multi-sided armed conflict.

ISIS, the militant group that took control of parts of Syria and Iraq last year, has found footholds in Libya as a result of a power vacuum engendered by civil war. Now the group’s own attacks on the country’s crucial oil infrastructure are denying resources to its rivals and creating conditions that could help it expand.

“The Islamic State is trying to use the disunity of Libyans, and the fact that there is fighting going on between rival armed groups to target Libya’s only source of income, Libya’s national wealth represented by the oil facilities,” said Mohamed Eljarh a Libya-based fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank.

“By attacking the oil sector in Libya, they will ensure that any unity government will be deprived of much of the funds they need to buy the weapons they need to face this group.” he said.

The attacks forced the national oil company to shut down operations at 11 oilfields earlier in March. In one assault on the Ghani oilfield, the militants killed at least nine people and took several workers as hostages, including four Filipinos, an Austrian, a Bangladeshi, a Czech, a Ghanaian, and one unidentified person. Libya’s overall oil production dropped to a reported 325,000 barrels per day in January, down from 1.7 million per day before the 2011 uprising.

Oil, along with the central bank and other elements of state infrastructure, has also become a focus of conflict between the warring parties, who are divided into two broad camps aligned to two competing parliaments, one in the capital Tripoli and the other — internationally recognized — in Tobruk. Powerful militias from the city of Misrata recently sent some 3,000 men in a bid to take control of the oil port at Sidra, currently controlled by forces of former rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran.

ISIS-aligned militias have also emerged as a rogue factor in Libya’s larger political conflict in which two rival governments and their allied militias are locked in an ongoing battle for control. Neither of the two main political groupings has been able to strike a decisive blow against the other. Neither has been able to dislodge ISIS from its local bases.

Among those strongholds, the city of Sirte has emerged as a flashpoint in the current crisis. ISIS controls key neighborhoods in the city. Its artillery-mounted pickup trucks patrol the streets and its black flag is flying over a large convention center, according to Claudia Gazzini, a Libya-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Sirte and its environs is also where ISIS militants kidnapped at least 20 of the 21 Coptic Christians whose execution they announced in a graphic online video in February. The city is also thought to be the base for attacks on the oilfields in the desert to the south.

In one such raid in February, gunmen killed the guards on the perimeter of an oilfield, then rounded up the workers, lecturing them on the Islamic State’s notion of “true Islam,” according to officials who briefed Gazzini. The attackers threatened the facility’s manager: Tell no one of this for six hours, enough time to allow the attackers to escape. Then they left, taking everything they could: Cars, equipment, guns.

Subsequent attacks have unfolded in a similar style. In each raid, Gazzini says, “They’ve gone in, looted, and gone out.”

“These are targets of opportunity for them, given the proximity to Sirte. It’s a strategy of disruption,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’re trying to raise their stature through these spectacular attacks and increase visibility and attract recruits.”

The ISIS presence has been a source of mounting concern for the militias in nearby Misrata. On March 14, Misratan forces clashed with ISIS fighters in Sirte, reportedly killing 25 members of the local ISIS affiliate.

“The Misratan commanders told me we’re going to have to confront this threat eventually,” said Wehrey in an interview last week. “They were reluctant to go in with force because of tribal blowback, that this would trigger some kind of tribal feud.”

Meanwhile, the identity of the militants joining ISIS is a subject of dispute among Libya’s factions. Many in the broad camp allied with Tripoli assert that ISIS includes supporters of the former regime of Muammar Qaddafi, which was brought down in an armed, NATO-supported uprising in 2011.The ICG’s Gazzini says there is evidence to suggest that some Qaddafi loyalists may have joined forces with ISIS. Unlike some armed groups that take a hard line against members of the old regime, ISIS has reportedly projected a message in Libya that anyone is welcome to join, provided they pledge loyalty and accept the group’s doctrine.

“Maybe some are faking it, but also the IS rhetoric appeals to a group of former regime officials who somehow felt persecuted in these last few years,” says Gazzini. “The message Dashis [ISIS] might have been projecting out was that of acceptance as long as they repent for their sins.”

TIME Libya

ISIS Fighters Take Over Major Libyan Oilfields

ISIS Islamic State Lybia
AFP/Getty Images An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos allegedly shows members of the Islamic State (IS) militant group parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte, released on Feb. 18, 2015.

Oilfield guards retreated after running out of ammunition

Fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took over at least two oilfields in Libya and attacked another on Tuesday, according to oil and government sources.

Mashallah al-Zewi, the oil minister in the Tripoli-based government said ISIS attacked the Dhahra oilfield, before retreating. He told AP on Wednesday that the militants swept down from the central city of Sirte and attacked Dhahra oil field to the south, trading fire with guards and blowing up residential and administrative buildings before eventually retreating.

Colonel Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for Libyan oil industry security told the BBC said the same fighters first took the oilfields at Bahi and Mabruk. “Extremists took control of the Bahi and Mabruk fields and are now heading to seize the Dhahra field following the retreat of the forces guarding these sites,” he said.

Images published online by the Libya Observer news organization showed smashed metal equipment and the charred wreckage of a pickup truck at the Bahi field.

The attacks came as Libya’s warring factions escalated their ongoing conflict. Forces aligned to the government in Tobruk and the rival Libya Dawn administration in Tripoli both staged air strikes on each other’s positions on Tuesday.

Libya has passed through several phases of turmoil since 2011 when its leader Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in an armed uprising supported by NATO airstrikes. Today, two rival governments are vying for power in a country divided among multiple armed groups.

ISIS, which sent fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya last year, has also emerged as force in Libya, attracting some support among local militias. Last month Egyptian fighter jets struck ISIS targets in Libya after the group released a video showing the execution of 21 Coptic Christian hostages.

Read more: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

The two oil fields, located south of the city of Sirte, have been shut down for weeks in part due to security concerns. An attack on the Mabruk field last month left at least 12 people dead.

Even if they were able to operate the fields, insurgents would find it difficult to export oil via the country’s Mediterranean ports. An attempt in 2014 by Eastern Libyan rebels to smuggle crude oil was stopped when U.S. special forces boarded the ship, the Morning Glory, off Cyprus.

Experts believe that large-scale oil smuggling from Libya is more difficult than in Iraq where ISIS has been able to export oil to Turkey, Jordan and Iran.

“There’s no way to smuggle oil in Libya,” said Jason Pack, a researcher on Libya at Cambridge University. “The difference from a place like Iraq is Iraq has a long tradition of oil from the Kurdish region going in trucks to Turkey. Libya has no such tradition.”

Analysts say ISIS’s advances in Libya have been made possible by the political conflict in Libya. This week’s escalation comes as the recognized government in Tobruk officially appointed Khalifa Haftar as its armed forces chief. Haftar’s military campaign launched last year against Islamist-leaning factions has further divided the country.

“There’s ISIS in Libya because there’s a lack of a state, and there’s the ability of every militia group to control territory because the major factions won’t work together,” says Pack. “The absolutely only way to eliminate territorial pockets in places like Sirte and Derna is if these groups are willing to work together against ISIS.”

Read next: Hear Jihadi John Defend Himself Against Charge of Extremism

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Libya

ISIS Sets Sights on Europe in Latest Beheading Video

Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly killed by ISIS militants in Libya react after hearing the news on Feb. 16, 2015 in the village of Al-Awar in Egypt's southern province of Minya.
Mohamed El-Shahed—AFP/Getty Images Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly killed by ISIS militants in Libya react after hearing the news on Feb. 16, 2015, in the village of Al-Awar in Egypt's southern province of Minya

Brutal killing of 21 seems an attempt to provoke retaliation

The executioner speaks in English and points his knife toward the Mediterranean. “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission,” he says.

The video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday showing the killings of 21 Egyptian Christian workers, appeared to be directed at the Christian world, the continent of Europe and gloried in its brutality.

It was filmed in Libya on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The video made no reference to the other powers in Libya’s civil war, in which both of the country’s rival governments claim to be combating ISIS.

Unlike the statements of other Islamist groups in the region, the video also made no mention of the Egyptian state, which has cracked down on political Islam since the removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt’s government is also participating in the fight against Islamists in Libya.

Instead, the five-minute film is concerned with more international themes. The targets are not modern states, but rather “Rome” and Christians, who are labeled “the people of the cross, the followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.” The message was phrased in religious terms intended to transcend national boundaries. The video ends with the Mediterranean waves dyed red from the blood of the murdered men.

The spectacular appearance of ISIS on the Mediterranean’s southern shores alarmed European governments. Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called for NATO to intervene in Libya. “ISIS is at the door,” he was quoted as saying. “There is no time to waste.” If the country’s conflict is not resolved soon, U.K. special envoy Jonathan Powell declared, Libya risks becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean.”

In response to the murders, Egypt launched air strikes against what it said were ISIS positions in eastern Libya on Monday. It was the first time Egypt acknowledged military operations in Libya, although the government has secretly backed the internationally recognized government in Libya’s civil conflict since last year.

But in spite of ISIS’ self-aggrandizing rhetoric, experts say the best solution is the formation of a unified Libyan government rather than international intervention. “You will not be able to effectively solve the counterterrorism problem, which may involve some external support, without addressing the political conflict,” says Issandr El Amrani, director of International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project.

“Both sides in the political conflict are against ISIS,” he says. “It’s a common problem. The thing is, they’re not going to focus on doing that, all these various militias in both camps, if they’re too busy fighting each other.”

El Amrani says calls for NATO, European, or U.S. intervention were unlikely to result in a large-scale intervention. “There’s not a lot of countries that are very excited about spending more resources on a new military adventure in Libya. Its footprint is likely to be very modest,” he says.

Bill Quandt, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and professor emeritus in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, argues that Western options in Libya are limited. “After all we’ve been carrying out air strikes every day in Syria and Iraq and it’s hard to say how much difference it’s making.”

“Iraq and Syria are different in that there are geostrategic stakes involved, particularly with Iraq,” he says. “We’ve invested so heavily there that there’s a sense of sunk costs that we can’t let it totally go down the drain. I don’t think there is that feeling about Libya.”

Read next: Pope Francis Condemns ISIS Killing of Coptic Christians

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME conflict

Pope Francis Condemns ISIS Killing of Coptic Christians

VATICAN-MASS-POPE-CARDINALS
Andreas Solaro—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis leads a mass on February 15, 2015 at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican.

'The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out'

Pope Francis on Monday condemned the killing of 21 Coptic Christians hostages in Libya by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), according to a Vatican Radio report.

“The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out,” he told a delegation from Scotland on Monday. “If they are Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it is not important: They are Christians. The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ.”

Read More: Beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya Shows ISIS Branching Out

The hostages, believed to be laborers from Egypt, are now “martyrs,” Francis said.

The Libyan extremist group, which swears fealty to ISIS, released a five-minute video Sunday showing militants with knives killing 21 people wearing orange jumpsuits on a beach.

Egyptian authorities confirmed the authenticity of the video, and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi launched air strikes against targets in Libya hours after vowing to avenge the deaths.

TIME Italy

More Than 2,000 Migrants From Libya Have Been Rescued by the Italian Coast Guard

Italy Migrants
Francesco Malavolta—AP Migrants wait to disembark from a tugboat after being rescued in the Pozzallo harbor in Sicily, Italy, on Feb. 15, 2015

They were attempting a perilous journey in just 12 small boats

The Italian coast guard rescued more than 2,000 migrants who got into difficulty between the Libyan coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday.

The rescue teams were also threatened by four men armed with Kalashnikov rifles who approached them by speedboat from Libya, reports the BBC.

The gunmen forced the rescuers to return one of the boats after the migrants had been taken off it to safety, said Italy’s Transport Ministry.

Local media reported that all 2,164 migrants aboard 12 boats had been saved and taken to Italy.

The stretch of Mediterranean between Northern Africa and Italy is a perilous crossing for those in unseaworthy vessels. The U.N. said almost 3,500 people died attempting the voyage in 2014.

Last week, at least 300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean as their overcrowded boats sank in stormy weather.

On Friday, another 600 migrants, on board just six dinghies, were rescued by the Italian coast guard after their rubber craft got into trouble.

[BBC]

TIME Egypt

Egypt Launches Air Raids Against ISIS Bases in Libya

Islamic State Copts
Hassan Ammar—AP Coptic Christian men whose relatives were abducted by ISIS militants gather in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, Egypt, on Feb. 13, 2015

President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt had the right to punish “those inhuman criminal killers”

Egyptian warplanes launched fresh sorties against militants allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Monday after the jihadists released a gruesome video showing the apparent execution of more than a dozen Egyptian hostages over the weekend.

Egypt’s air force reportedly targeted ISIS training sites and weapons storage areas in Libya at dawn, reports Reuters.

“The air strikes hit their targets precisely, and the falcons of our air forces returned safely to their bases,” read a statement released by the nation’s military on Monday.

Hours before the strikes began, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi promised during a televised address to retaliate against the militants responsible for the murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had been working in Libya as laborers.

“Egypt reserves the right to respond at the proper time and in the appropriate style in retaliation against those inhuman criminal killers,” al-Sisi said, according to the BBC.

Fighters associated with ISIS have flocked to the group’s strongholds in eastern Syria and swaths of northern Iraq. However, years of instability in war-torn Libya have also allowed the group to expand its influence into pockets of North Africa.

TIME Libya

Beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya Shows ISIS Branching Out

Egyptians demonstrate demanding the Government do more to rescue Copts kidnapped by IS in LIbya
Ahmed Masri—Almasry Alyoum/EPA Egyptians protest in Cairo what they characterise as government inaction in reaction to the kidnapping of Coptic Christians in Libya, Feb. 13, 2015.

Militants in Libya represent a "second front" in ISIS's war against the West

The Egyptian government said Sunday that a video apparently showing the execution of Coptic Egyptian hostages in Libya by militants allied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was genuine, underscoring the group’s global reach and the unity of message among its adherents.

The five-minute clip, published online on Sunday, depicts the hostages — believed to be 21 Christian Coptic laborers from Egypt, kidnapped from the city of Sirt — being marched onto a beach where they are forced onto the sand and then killed by knife-wielding executioners.

One of the killers, dressed in camouflage, speaks in English. “We will conquer Rome,” he declares, pointing his knife toward the sea.

The video has similar qualities to the filmed executions of ISIS hostages in Iraq and Syria. The hostages wear the same orange jumpsuits as the Western hostages, intended as a reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners in the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In a televised address, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said his country reserved the right to retaliate for the killings. He also reiterated an offer to facilitate Egyptians’ evacuation from Libya and imposed a ban on citizens traveling to Libya. The President also convened a meeting of senior security officials to discuss a response to the crisis.

The mass killings by a group that identified itself in the video as the “Tripoli Province” of ISIS gives a stark illustration of the group’s influence in Libya, a country consumed by upheaval since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in an uprising backed by NATO in 2011. Two rival governments and a variety of militia groups are currently locked in a multipolar fight for control of the country.

“I think it’s possible that there are currently more Daesh adherents in Libya than in any other country in the world except for Iraq and Syria,” says Christopher Chivvis, a senior analyst at the Santa Monica–based Rand Corp.

“It’s possible that Libya is now emerging as a sort of second front in [ISIS’s] effort to expand from a regional into a global organization,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a direct command-and-control kind of relationship where core ISIS is able to, with any degree of confidence, order specific operations in Libya. I think there’s moral and probably also financial and potentially other forms of support.”

A militia group in eastern Libya declared its affiliation with ISIS last year. Since then, fighters allied to the group have claimed responsibility for attacks across the country, including an assault on a luxury hotel in Tripoli in January.

“The problem is that overlaid on this ISIS threat is a deeply divided country, a civil war. And ISIS is exploiting the fissures of that civil war,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Analysts say ISIS is seeking to attract the support of existing militia groups in Libya in hopes of gaining an upper hand over rival organizations like al-Qaeda or local insurgent groups like Salafist militia group Ansar al-Sharia. The Institutions of the Libyan state have eroded, leaving control of specific cities in the hands of a range of separate armed groups.

“[ISIS] is benefiting from the decline of jihadist groups in the east, like Ansar al-Sharia,” said Wehrey. “It’s co-opting or luring many members of the jihadist movement in the east into its ranks. It’s trying to carve out new turf.”

TIME Behind the Photos

Meet the Photographer Who Found How to Balance a Life of Love and War

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario has published her first memoir

“I would never think of myself as a role model,” says Lynsey Addario. The 41-year-old, twice-kidnapped, mother-of-one, award-winning photojournalist has released, this month, her first book: an autobiography of her life as a Connecticut-born photographer who has spent the last 15 years witnessing the true human cost of war, particularly for women across the world.

And yet, even if Addario declines to be defined as a role model, with It’s What I Do, she hopes that her own experience, fraught with doubts about her intertwined professional and personal lives, will encourage other women to define their own paths. “[This book is the continuation of my work] as a messenger of experiences,” she tells TIME. “In this case, they are my own experiences.”

Addario didn’t set out to write an autobiography. Her goal, at first, was to produce a monograph of her work. “I’ve always wanted to do a photo book but I’ve never done one because I’ve never felt ready, I just didn’t feel my work was good enough,” she says. “I’ve seen so many photographers rush to do books the minute they start shooting but one great thing about photography is that the images don’t go away, so the more I sit with these images, the more I learn which ones have had the most impact.”

In a career that spanned two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and saw Addario travel to Cuba, India, Pakistan, Israel and Libya, the photographer has had many close calls. She was briefly abducted in Iraq in 2004, and was injured in a car accident in Pakistan in 2009. But, it’s her second abduction, in Libya in 2011 that has come to define, for better or worse, her career as a woman photographer – bringing with it worldwide attention to Addario’s work and the impetus for her memoir.

When Addario was released after five days in captivity, she took a step back from the frontlines, she says, and started contemplating the idea of producing her first monograph. “I was having conversations with Aperture about trying to do a photo book [until] I found out [the photojournalists] Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros had been killed in Libya. It threw me for a loop,” she says. “I had survivor’s guilt. It sort of brought back the trauma of my own experience in Libya in a way that was even exacerbated. I didn’t shun photography, but I felt I needed to tap in into something different.”

The thought of writing a book was, at first, daunting “but it wasn’t as daunting as doing a photo book,” she says. “With photography, I always think that it’s not good enough,” while writing simply involved getting the facts down on paper. “I kept journals for many years,” Addario tells TIME. “I also relied pretty heavily on email correspondence between my family, my friends and myself. So it was more of a matter of pulling all of it together.”

The result is a series of vignettes and moments that “really struck in my mind,” she says. From her first trips in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she had to play a game of cat-and-mouse with a clerk at an Islamabad embassy in order to get a visa, to her delicate relationships with men over the years, It’s What I Do, is about the difficult, and often unattainable, balance that most photographers struggle with in their professional and personal lives.

But, it’s also a book about a photographer’s commitment to her subjects, especially women, who, as Addario says, are victims of their birthplace.

“As a photographer and as a journalist, I am privy to people’s most intimate moments and it’s always been surprising by how much people open up to me,” she says. “All of these moments – women giving birth, women talking about rape – are incredibly personal and incredibly private.”

Being afforded this kind of access, Addario feels she has a responsibility to show the world what she’s seen. “I feel a huge pressure to be successful in communicating their trauma. I have to make sure that I take this information and disseminate it in a way that’s useful to them in the long term; that will prevent other women from going through what they went through. I can’t imagine not dedicating my life to trying to stop those things from happening.”

But Addario also feels guilt, she says. “Why was I so lucky to be born in Connecticut and to be offered this privileged life when so many people around the world are born into lives of extreme labor and hardship. I constantly struggle with this. Why are some people luckier than others?”

Luck almost ran out for the photographer when she was abducted, alongside her colleagues Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks in Libya on March 16, 2011. But, the experience, recounted in great details in It’s What I Do, only reinforced Addario’s commitment. “It actually gave me strength to realize that I’m not a victim,” she tells TIME. “I am a woman who makes these decisions to go to war zones. I know what the risks are. I know it’s possible that I could to get kidnapped. I know it’s possible that I could get assaulted. Those are the risks I take in order to tell these stories.”

She continues: “When I was in Libya, there are distinct moments and images that are seared in my brain that I’ll never forget: being tied up, blindfolded and groped, begging for my life, and begging for someone not to rape me. In these moments, I’ve thought so much about all the women I photographed over the years and how unbelievably strong they were. That was such a source of strength because I thought that if they could get through it when they’ve gone through so much worse, [I could get through it too].”

After her kidnapping, Addario developed a more comprehensive understanding of the people she had been covering all these years. Similarly, she says, becoming a mother was also a defining moment in her life as a photographer. “When I became a mother, I realized so much more about the mothers I’ve photographed and that love that is inexplicable for someone that doesn’t have a child.”

But Addario was ambivalent about becoming a mother, she tells TIME. “I just thought that my life was going to end and I would never be able to photograph again. I couldn’t figure it out because I didn’t have any role models, I didn’t know a single woman conflict photographer who had children.”

This lack of female role models, which has constantly plagued the male-dominated world of photojournalism, is best exemplified in the comments Addario has received over the years from readers. “Everyone is having a field day judging what a horrible woman I am, what a bad mother I am,” she says. “I find it fascinating that anyone feel like they have the right to tell me how to live my life.”

“All of these people,” she adds, “seem to forget that the places I’m photographing are rife with women and mothers. Why are they not up in arms about those women and how they have to live? I think it’s very easy to judge.”

Before writing this book, Addario knew she’d become, once again, the target of such commentary. “I knew every single person would come out of the woods and feel they have a right to judge a pregnant woman, a mother,” she says. “But where are all the people screaming at all the men who leave their pregnant wives at home and go off to a war zone? Why is there no uproar about that?”

And while Addario hopes her book will foster a dialogue, for her, the most important goal was to be honest and open about her life and her struggles. “Sometimes I’ve made mistakes,” she says, “and sometimes I haven’t, but I’ve always learned something, and that’s what I want to teach my son.”

Lynsey Addario is a photojournalist represented by Getty Images Reportage. Her memoir, It’s What I do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, is published by Penguin Press.

Cubie King, who produced this video interview, is a senior producer at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME energy

Could Libyan Militants Spark an Oil Price Rebound?

Oil Storage tank
Getty Images

Militants target oil export terminals

Violence in a major oil producing country may finally halt the oil price slide.

Analysts have speculated whether the slump in oil prices would be reversed by an uptick in demand, a buying spree by investors in cheap commodities, or high-cost producers being forced out of the market. But it may be a sudden burst of violence in Libya that provides the spark to oil prices that the markets have been looking for.

Libya has experienced several waves of violence in recent years, violence that has caused periodic disruptions in Libya’s oil sector.

Prewar oil production topped 1.6 million barrels per day, a level that fell to nearly zero in early 2014. But violence receded in the summer as militant groups reached a political breakthrough with the internationally-recognized government. That allowed Libya to ramp up its oil output, contributing to market oversupply and the fall in prices.

However, the country’s fortunes have quickly taken a turn for the worse once again. Militants attacked Libya’s main oil export terminal in mid-December, launching rocket attacks on oil storage tanks. After two weeks of fighting, several storage tanks were set ablaze on December 25. Around 850,000 barrels of oil were destroyed in the fires.

Two major oil ports – Es Sider and Ras Lanuf – are shuttered due to violence. The government has already declared force majeure on the ports, citing the violence as a justification for its inability to export oil.

Then on December 28 the government launched airstrikes on the militant groups in response. And reports surfaced on December 29 that fires were raging at several oil storage tanks at the Es Sider port. The Libyan government requested assistance from the governments of Italy and the United States to help extinguish the blazes.

“Three fires are burning and three others have been put out,” Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni said by phone on December 29. There are a total of 19 storage tanks on site with the capacity to hold 6.2 million barrels of oil.

Oil production has fallen from 900,000 barrels per day in October down to just 350,000 barrels per day. Other estimates peg Libya’s oil production at just 230,000 barrels per day.

The turmoil in Libya may help oil prices rebound from their five-year lows. Futures for Brent crude were up 1.3 percent in intraday trading on December 29.

To be sure Libya is still a relatively minor oil producer compared to other countries, and the oil markets have no doubt come to see the country as an unreliable source of production when predicting future supply and demand. In fact, analysts are predicting that there will still be around 1.5 to 2 million barrels per day of excess supply heading into 2015.

But it is not as if the 700,000 barrels per day or so that have been suddenly knocked offline in Libya are meaningless. That could amount to about a third of the glut predicted for the coming year, and given the uptick in prices on the news, keeping this oil off the market would certainly lead to higher prices.

Even still, it is far from clear if it will significantly move the needle on prices. On the same day as the Libyan government launched airstrikes, Algeria, a fellow member of OPEC, said that it was necessary for OPEC to step in and correct for the supply and demand mismatch. “For us, OPEC has to intervene to correct the imbalance and cut production to bring up prices and defend the income of its member states,” Youcef Yousfi, Algeria’s Oil Minister, said on December 28.

That is because despite the uptick in oil prices on news from Libya’s burning oil port, Brent crude prices are still hovering near five-year lows. It may take more than an outage in Libya to force oil prices back up in a major way.

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

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