The Islamic State’s main branch in Libya launched attacks Monday near a key oil export terminal on the Mediterranean, the latest in a growing offensive that national security sources say underscores the terrorist group’s desire to seize lucrative territory in the war-torn North African nation to fund its global ambitions.
Although the Libyan “province” of the Islamic State has not fully seized control of any major oil operations, the group claimed Monday to have taken over the strategic coastal town of Ben Jawad before clashing with security forces around the nearby Es Sider export terminal.
The terminal sits near the heart of Libya’s “oil crescent,” a stretch of coastline between Benghazi and the central city of Sirte, which emerged months ago as the first significant stronghold for the Islamic State outside of its base in Syria and Iraq.
Libya descended into chaos after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and rival governments and the militias that support them have since fought for control of the nation and its energy reserves. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has seized on the security vacuum to grab territory in the nation.
The latest developments suggest the group is now pushing from Sirte eastward into the oil crescent, which is home to several ports and storage facilities, including one at the town of Ras Lanuf, where a storage tank was set ablaze during Monday’s clashes.
“They’ve had control of areas like Sirte for a while, and if they can now actually seize control of Es Sider and a few other towns like Ras Lanuf they could be running the port there,” said Seth Jones, who heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.
But Mr. Jones said it’s unclear whether the Libyan outpost will be able to follow the success of the Islamic State’s central operation in Syria and Iraq, where the group has financed itself for more than a year by smuggling oil from nearby fields and refineries.
“Right now, it looks like they’re pushing just to increase territorial control of areas, particularly in the north of Libya,” he said. “What’s unclear is how much of this is a result of them actually trying to take or destroy oil infrastructure.”
The Long War Journal noted Monday that the Libyan branch of the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted the country’s oil infrastructure, some of which has been shut down for months because of violence.
“As in Iraq and Syria, the ‘caliphate’ seeks to control key Libyan oil fields, refineries, ports and other facilities,” wrote Thomas Joscelyn, who edits the journal, produced by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It remains to be seen if today’s attacks, which are testing local security forces, lead to further advances.”
While two Islamic State suicide car bombs reportedly detonated near the Es Sider terminal, witnesses said, the militants retreated after clashing with the Petrol Security Guard — a force believed to be aligned with political groups trying to form an internationally backed central government in Libya.
The storage tank that exploded at Ras Lanuf — roughly 12 miles from Es Sider — was reportedly hit by a rocket. A spokesman for Libya’s National Oil Co. said the tank was holding about 400,000 barrels of oil. The company was still trying to put out the fire Monday night.
Oil is Libya’s main natural resource. The nation sits on reserves estimated at 48 billion barrels, the largest in Africa. Before Gadhafi’s ouster, total Libyan output capacity was roughly 1.6 million barrels per day — accounting for more than 95 percent of the nation’s exports and some 75 percent of the government’s budget.
The chaos in recent years have reduced the nation’s crude oil production to less than a quarter of the 2011 high point.
Rival factions have fought for control of Libya since August 2014, when an Islamist-backed militia alliance overran Tripoli, forcing the internationally recognized government to take refuge in the east. The United Nations has since pressed both sides to accept a power-sharing agreement.
On Dec. 17, under U.N. guidance, envoys from both sides and a number of independent political figures signed a deal for a unity government. But the deal still must be implemented, and the resulting government will be challenged to organize a force to contain the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that national security sources say are also operating in Libya.
The Islamic State’s ability to seize and hold oil production sites in Libya may depend on the extent to which outside powers, including the U.S. and its allies in Europe, are willing to intervene militarily on behalf of Libya’s struggling central government.
There is speculation that Britain may be on the verge of sending special operations forces into Libya to battle the Islamic State on the ground in Sirte.
The Daily Telegraph reported Monday that the British government has a plan to deploy up to 1,000 troops that would form part of a 6,000-strong joint force with Italy — Libya’s former colonial power — in training and advising Libyan forces.
The British offer to help, however, has been contingent on the success of last month’s U.N. unity deal between Libya’s two main rival political factions.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday dismissed an Islamic State video purportedly showing the executions of five British “spies,” a 10-minute video narrated by an English-speaking jihadi saying it was a sign of the terrorist group’s weakness, not a sign of strength.
“It’s desperate stuff from an organization that really does do the most utterly despicable and ghastly acts, and people can see that again today,” he said, according to an Associated Press report. “But this is an organization that’s losing territory, it’s losing ground, it’s, I think, increasingly losing anybody’s sympathy.”
The Obama administration has resisted heavy engagement in Libya since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
U.S. officials claimed last month to have carried out an airstrike that killed the senior Islamic State leader in Libya — an Iraqi named Wissam Najm Abd Zyd al Zubaydi and known as Abu Nabil, but Mr. Jones said Monday that the overall “Western counterterrorism response in Libya has been very minimal.
“As a result, what we’re seeing is an expansion of ISIS and other jihadist groups,” he said. “A drone strike here or there is not really doing much when, ideally, you want to be taking back territory.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.