ISIS now has a foothold in an oil-rich Mediterranean port city

Libya Oil FireStringer ./REUTERSFirefighters try to put out a fire in an oil tank in Es Sider port December 26, 2014.

The reach of ISIS is becoming increasingly international in scope.

The jihadist organisation has accepted pledges of allegiance from organisations in Afghanistan, Algeria, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with Nigeria’s Boko Haram being the latest organisation to apply for membership in the Islamic State.

A March 10 New York Times report delves into maybe the most alarming of ISIS’s outposts: ISIS (aka ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh) has established a foothold in Sirte, a Libyan port city west of Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast.

A few hundred firmly entrenched and battle-hardened fighters control major choke points, have commandeered the city’s radio stations, and have launched attacks in the surrounding area — including the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach outside the city February and assaults on nearby oil facilities.

Moreover, Sirte’s ISIS fighters seem to be taking direct cues from the Islamic State’s headquarters in Mesopotamia. “The contingent here in Sirte has not only taken over a major Libyan city but also demonstrated clear coordination with the parent organisation” the Times reports, citing the sophistication and even synchronicity of the groups’ propaganda and messaging.

LibyaReutersAreas on air strikes after 21 Coptic Christians were murdered by ISIS

An ISIS takeover of Sirte is a huge problem for Libya. According to the US Department of Energy, around 80% of Libya’s recoverable oil reserves are located in the Sirte basin, an area “which also accounts for most of the country’s oil output.”

Libya’s oil industry is operating at a bare minimum, with exports limited to a few still-operational offshore rigs. Exports have plunged nearly from 1.5 million barrels per day in August of 2014 to 150,000 barrels per day in February.

Libya has the 9th-largest proven oil reserves on earth, one cause for optimism that the country will at least have the resources to rebuild after its current civil war, which pits two rival governments against one another and is being fought between comparably brutal Islamist and nationalist militant blocs.

Oil-funded reconstruction becomes a taller order if ISIS is camped out near 4/5s of the reserves. The group’s entrenchment could raise longstanding security fears that scare off risk-averse foreign investors, particularly in a time when oil is cheaper and more plentiful than it’s been in decades.

Libya sirteREUTERS/Asmaa WaguihFamilies of the 27 Egyptian Coptic Christians workers kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sirte, hold a banner with pictures of their kidnapped relatives as they ask for their release, in front of the U.N. office in Cairo January 19, 2015. The banner reads, ‘Where’s the international community when the innocents are being kidnapped in Libya?’

The Sirte takeover has some broader implications as well. As Washington Institute for Near East Policy terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin explained to Business Insider in the context of Boko Haram’s pledge to ISIS, an alliance with Africa’s deadliest jihadist group shows that ISIS’s message holds appeal even in spite of recent battlefield defeats.

“It shows that ISIS still has momentum even while they’re losing territory in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Syria, and it’s possibly another area where they can gain revenue and resources for the organisation,” Zelin said of the Boko Haram pledge.

Isis militantsScreen grabThey still have the initiative — and now they have a Mediterranean port.

Control over a Mediterranean base of operations conveys the same message, only in a location hundreds of miles closer to the major economies of continental Europe. And it gives ISIS many of the same advantages, like possible control over trade and criminal networks.

The Sirte outpost shows that ISIS still has plenty of strategic initiative, along with appeal that stretches far beyond Mesopotamia — and that this hasn’t been weakened by the Islamic State’s recent string of battlefield setbacks.

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