It might be facing a string of defeats in its core territories, but in Libya ISIS continues to advance. The Libyan affiliate of ISIS first appeared in the country in 2014, centered around the coastal town of Derna in the northeast of the country. Despite losing this town to other Islamist groups, ISIS has relocated its forces to Sirte, the former hometown of Mummar al-Gadaffi located on the central Libyan coast.
There they have solidified their control cover the city and spread both east and west, carving out a small, but nonetheless significant amount of territory for themselves. Towards the end of 2015, the Libyan Interior Ministry estimated that the militant group had approximately 4000-5000 fighters based in the country and was likely planning to use the area as a strategic backup should their core territories in Iraq and Syria be lost.
However, similar to other ISIS groups, the Libyan affiliate also has expansion in mind, and over the course of the last few days, has begun a concerning advance on key oil facilities in the country. On the 4th of January, the militant group began an attack east from their home base around Sirte with large force of fighters.
First the group released a statement announcing the capture of Bin Jawad. While this was hailed by some as a large victory for ISIS, in actual fact the town had already faced significant ISIS infiltration over the months, and was thus very close to falling as it was. Nonetheless, the formal 'capture' of yet another population centre by the group is still concerning.
More crucially ISIS has in the last 48 hours continued onwards from Bin Jawad towards the towns of Sidra and Ras Lanuf. The militants began this attack with a suicide car bombing directed against the militia guarding the Sidra oil facility which is loyal to the Tobruk government, one of Libya’s two main factions. This was then followed by a number of missile and mortar attacks which damaged and set alight at least one of the oil storage tanks on the location.
While the group guarding the facility claimed that it was successful in driving back the ISIS assault, by the morning of the 5th of January, ISIS was in control of the oil tanks and their immediate surroundings. This was proven through a video ISIS released showing their fighters milling about the area, with no signs of any ongoing battles. Adding more weight to the possibility that they had suffered a defeat, the Sidra installation guards confirmed the deaths of at least 7 of their personnel.
Beyond the attacks against the Sidra oil storage facilities, there have also been reports of further attacks directed against Ras Lanuf, located several kilometers further east along the coast. While the outcome from this fighting is yet to be known, additional footage released by ISIS has been geolocated and proved to show a part of a second set of oil tanks south of Ras Lanuf under their control.
Although the capture of these oil tanks is significant, their value will be greatly amplified if ISIS is also able to capture the oil refining and port facilities further northeast in Ras Lanuf proper. Such assets would enable the group to supplement its revenue with money made from the oil products trade in a similar fashion to its counterparts in Syria.
Regardless of the final results of this offensive, it proves that ISIS is a dangerous and growing threat in Libya. Due to the fractious nature of the Libyan politics and its ongoing civil war, it is likely that any one group will be able to dislodge the militant group from its positions without outside help. With this in mind, we can expect to see further consolidation and expansion of the group within Libya in the first months of 2016, as well as growing international calls for intervention.