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Jan 18, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

9 mins read

In Libya, the Islamic State Drives a Deeper Wedge Between Militia Leaders

In Libya, Islamic State Attacks Create a Confrontation Between Leaders
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The Islamic State will continue targeting Libya's oil infrastructure ahead of the formation of a new unity government in the country.
  • Retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter has deployed forces to protect pipelines, terminals and other oil facilities from further Islamic State attacks.
  • Although Hifter and former Petroleum Facilities Guard leader Ibrahim Jadhran share the goal of protecting Libya's oil infrastructure, their separate attempts to achieve that goal will add to the animosity between them.

For the fourth time in two weeks, militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State targeted Libya's oil infrastructure, attacking on Jan. 14 a pipeline leading to the Ras Lanuf export terminal. A week earlier, militants attacked the Ras Lanuf and As Sidra oil export facilities. Meanwhile, retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the leader of the Libyan National Army, has moved his forces southward in Ajdabiya to remove jihadists from the city and has reportedly deployed some of his fighter planes to the Ras Lanuf air base.

Although Hifter's decision will help the local Petroleum Facilities Guard defend the facilities against future Islamic State attacks, it will also aggravate tension between Hifter and former Petroleum Facilities Guard regional leader Ibrahim Jadhran — two of eastern Libya's most powerful militia leaders. Though the men will remain hostile toward each other, they share the need to protect Libya's oil fields, pipelines and other facilities from long-term damage, especially since the Islamic State will continue to target the country's oil and natural gas infrastructure while Libya forms a new unity government.

The Islamic State's Destructive Plan

In 2015, the Islamic State was able to carve out territory around the city of Sirte while attempting to expand its control westward toward Misrata and Tripoli, and eastward toward Libya's vital oil infrastructure and fields. The group has been able to launch a number of terrorist attacks in Libya's heavily populated west, including the detonation of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Zliten on Jan. 7, which killed 65 people. Once the Islamic State consolidated its control around Sirte, it was able to expand eastward toward Bin Jawad, a town in a region lacking a strong military presence, and it claimed full control of the town on Jan. 4. Now the Islamic State can use the town, located just 32 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of As Sidra, as a base for launching more frequent attacks in Libya's "Oil Crescent" region.

Although the Islamic State will continue to threaten the oil export terminals in the Gulf of Sidra and some of the eastern fields in the Sirte Basin, the group is somewhat limited in its ability to profit from its attacks. Unlike the geography in Syria, which is conducive to smuggling, central Libya's remoteness makes smuggling oil and fuel far more difficult and far easier to disrupt. The Islamic State could sell oil to the local population and to other armed groups, but the Islamic State's core goals are to destroy the infrastructure so it can no longer benefit Libya's governments. Between the Islamic State's first attack on As Sidra in 2014 and the attacks earlier in January, most of the storage facilities at As Sidra are damaged, although the port infrastructure remains intact.

Hifter's Conundrum

Once the Islamic state began fully exerting its control over Sirte in May 2015, the Europeans, the United Nations and other outside players accelerated their plans to strike a deal uniting Libya's two rival governments, the General National Congress in Tripoli and the internationally recognized House of Representatives based in Tobruk. Now that the U.N. deal is in place, the West is planning an intervention to back the unity government and will be looking for local militia groups to partner with against the Islamic State.

The problem for Hifter is that while he is targeting groups aligned with al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Benghazi and Ajdabiya, he is not positioned to defend Ras Lanuf or As Sidra. He also cannot directly attack the Islamic State's positions around Sirte from the air or ground; his eastern air force, mainly stationed in Benghazi and Tobruk, lacks the range. This means that even though Hifter has been chosen as the military commander for the unity government, Hifter's competitors — including Jadhran's militias — could receive financial assistance and other support as the intervention begins.

If Hifter increases his presence in the Oil Crescent, it would be a significant development. However, the retired general's forces are already spread thin from trying to secure eastern Libya and Benghazi. Deploying planes into the Oil Crescent would require support from Jadhran's ground troops, but given the animosity between Jadhran and Hifter, it is questionable whether that support would be given. Instead of a declaration of deployment, the announcement that Hifter's forces will enter the area is probably symbolic; from a political standpoint, Hifter cannot afford to look like he is doing nothing to protect Libya's oil infrastructure.

Hifter and Jadhran's Personal Rivalry

Although Hifter and Jadhran are nominally aligned with the Tobruk government, the level of animosity between them cannot be overstated. Jadhran has established himself as a major player in Libya's energy sector. As the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard in the Oil Crescent, he has used his control over oil export infrastructure for political gain for the past four years. For example, he almost unilaterally shut down exports from the region from August 2013 until May 2014 while he established his own regional council and began exporting oil independently from the then-unified government in Tripoli. He eventually signed a peace agreement with the government that allowed exports to resume.

The terms of the agreement show where Jadhran's views lie. The government agreed to decentralize Libya's most important revenue generator — the National Oil Corp. — and move its main branch from Tripoli to a location in the Gulf of Sidra. This had been a long-standing demand of eastern leaders, whose region had been largely left out of oil revenue and patronage under former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's government, even though the region produced about two-thirds of the country's oil.

Jadhran consistently pushes for a federalist model of government for Libya, with more revenue distributed to regions other than Tripoli. He has found sympathizers in the House of Representatives government, which has a large federalist bloc. Even now, with Libya split into two governments, Jadhran has worked with the House of Representatives to establish a national oil company that rivals Tripoli's and is based in the east. He has used his control of key ports, such as Ras Lanuf, to deny the export of oil without going through the national oil company set up by the House of Representatives government in Tobruk.

Hifter, in contrast with Jadhran, has sought to position himself as a key part of the proposed unity government's military structure. Ever since intervening against Islamist fighters in eastern Libya, Hifter has attempted to strengthen his role as a commander. His vision for Libya is far from the decentralized model Jadhran favors, and he views Jadhran as a thief.

The men's resentment goes beyond ideological views. In September 2015, Jadhran's convoy paid a working visit to Tobruk, where it was attacked at one of Hifter's military checkpoints. Jadhran escaped, but three days later the military sent out another convoy that attempted to arrest him. Jadhran claims that the attack was an assassination attempt by Hifter. Later that month, Hifter also ordered the Tobruk government to investigate the Petroleum Facilities Guard and those loyal to Jadhran.

Jadhran also blames Hifter for pulling out of the fight against the Islamic State. In January, Jadhran's militia and the militias aligned with the Tripoli-based government — forces that had been fighting with one other just a year ago — coordinated with each other against Islamic State, even creating a joint operations room to make plans to retake Sirte from the Islamic State. Following the Islamic State attacks in January, Jadhran issued a televised statement saying that Hifter was no different than the Islamic State and that it was the Misratan air force aligned with the Libyan Dawn militia that provided support against the Islamic State, not Hifter's.

As the final negotiations on the unity government were taking place, Hifter pushed southward, toward Ajdabiya, to remove jihadists from the city. Ajdabiya is strategically important for Hifter: It sits in the middle of the Oil Crescent, is the largest city in the region and is the capital of the Ajdabiya District. The city has long been a center of extremism in Libya, and the Jadhran family is powerful there. Jadhran's father is an influential elder in Ajdabiya, and his brother — who opposes Hifter's offensive, preferring that local forces eject jihadists from the city — is the mayor. Hifter's airstrikes have led to heavy casualties in the city, alienating him from both Jadhrans. Some have argued that the Jadhran brothers are somewhat sympathetic toward some of the jihadist groups because their other brother is a leader of the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council, a militant group aligned with Ansar al-Sharia (though it allegedly has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State).

Eventually, Hifter and Jadhran will probably need to cooperate on some level, but Stratfor sources in Libya downplay the potential for any meaningful cooperation between the two. Still, Hifter cannot easily cast Jadhran aside and take control of the oil terminals. Even if Hifter drives the Islamic State out of the Oil Crescent without Jadhran's help, the former Petroleum Facilities Guard commander is not likely to give up control of the facilities without a direct confrontation with Hifter. If Jadhran is never removed, then he will continue playing a vital role in Libya's oil sector, exerting his and his family's control over the region's exports. This will make Jadhran a thorn in Hifter's side for some time, even if the retired general gains power under the unity government.

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