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Libya's Ghani oilfield raided by Islamic State

"There was screaming and shouting - It was chaos" - a soldier from the country's Petroleum Facilities Guard speaks out about the gunmen's murderous raid on the Ghani oilfield

It is fair to say that Libya's Ghani oilfield was never one of the country's output superstars.

Tucked away on the edge of the Sirte basin, one of a cluster of five fields operated by Harouge Oil Operations, its production of up to 74,000 barrels a day (b/d) made it a solid performer, rather than a standout. Ghani's name was not banded about at oil conferences, nor did it feature in spectacular bidding wars, and many in the industry had never heard of it. They have heard about it now, though.

On 6 March, Islamic State (IS) militants attacked the plant, beheading eight Libyan guards and cap-turing nine foreign hostages. In doing so, they threw Libya's entire oil industry, home to Africa's largest reserves, into turmoil.

Ghani's origins are modest enough. Prospectors from Mobil first found oil there in 1972. A small production base was built in a desert of black volcanic rock that one passing engineer wrote was "as close as we, non-astronauts, can get to the moon." A well was drilled and trees planted, becoming a stopping off point for migrating barn swallows, yellow wagtails and white-capped black wheat-ears, a pleasant distraction for staff working in one of the most arid regions on earth.

The field passed through a chain of owners, ending up with Harouge, a joint venture between state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) and PetroCanada (now Suncor). The company hired an oil services company, Malta-registered VAOS, to care for the facilities. The site was evacuated four years ago when the country rose in revolt against Muammar Qadhafi, but production quickly re-sumed after that conflict. 

The onset of civil war last summer -- between Islamist-led Libya Dawn, which captured Tripoli, and the elected government, which fled east to Tobruk -- did not at first disrupt the oil industry. One of the few things both combatants could agree on was that oil, almost Libya's only export, was sacrosanct.

But as fighting escalated, oil itself became a target. In November, Libya Dawn seized Sharara in the south west, Libya's largest field, operated by NOC and Spain's Repsol, cutting its 340,000 b/d production.

In December, Libya Dawn turned east, allying with Islamist hardliners Ansar al Sharia to attack government-held Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, respectively the country's largest oil port and its largest refinery. Government air strikes beat back the offensive, but a Libya Dawn speedboat attack set fire to Es Sider's storage tanks, with more than a million barrels lost a week-long conflagration. Force majeure was declared for both ports and they went offline.

Into this explosive mix came IS, the third side in Libya's chaotic civil war. It set up in Sirte, at first sharing the town with Dawn units using it as a base to attack the oil ports.

In February IS staged a suicide attack on Tripoli's Corinthian hotel, killing nine foreigners. The group then executed 21 Christians, 20 of them Egyptian, on the Sirte shoreline. Egypt launched retaliatory air strikes, but they had little effect. That month, IS turned its attention to the country's oilfields.

Sirte was a good choice as a base for IS because the region lies at the junction of the civil war, with Libya Dawn to the west and government forces to the east. With the two armies busy fighting each other on the coastal highway, IS was free to roam the interior, home to the bulk of Libya's oil pro-duction.

The oilfields of the Sirte basin cover a huge kidney-shaped swathe of land, accounting for two-thirds of Libya's production.Ghani lies on the western edge of the basin.

On 4 February, IS pushed south from Sirte and attacked the first oilfield in its path, Al Mabruk, joint-ly operated by NOC and Total. The small guard force was overwhelmed and 12 were killed, including at least four foreigners, two Filipinos working for Italian company Sogepi and two Ghanaians.

Despite its exposed position, Ghani was quiet. Like other local fields production was shut in in De-cember when Es Sider and Ras Lanuf went offline. But there was plenty to do; the previous year Harouge announced plans to replace more than seven kilometres of worn-out fencing, together with watchtowers and gates.

Then on 13 February, IS stormed NOC's Bahi field, 100km north of Ghani. Harouge evacuated staff from Ghani and Zella to the south, while VAOS downsized, announcing only a skeleton staff of 11 foreigners and three Libyans would remain at Ghani.

Meanwhile, IS continued its push south. On 4 March it attacked Waha Oil Company's Dahra field, 80km north of Ghani. Dahra, a joint venture between NOC and US companies Hess, Marathon Oil and ConocoPhillips, was attacked from three sides. Government air strikes failed to save it from being overrun.

The following day, NOC declared force majeure at 11 fields across the west of the Sirte basin. To the three already overrun, it added Beda, Fega, En Naga, Samah, Tibisti and Waha South. Ghani also joined the list. Meanwhile, a local militia patrolling the desert near Joffra, 50km north of Ghani, came under fire from IS units who had occupied an old abandoned fortress.

Ghani was now in the eye of a gathering storm. With the big fields to the north in the hands of IS, the main ones to the south, Hakim, Sabah and Zella, were evacuated by operator Zueitina Oil Company, jointly owned by NOC, America's Occidental and Austria's OMV.  

Ghani's defence rested in the hands of 10 soldiers from the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG).  In a country of competing militias, the PFG stands out as perhaps Libya's most apolitical armed force. 

Its units have tried to stay out of the civil war, concentrating on protecting the source of Libyan wealth.

In the east, many PFG units are beholden to their federalist commander Ibrahim Jathran, a fierce anti-Islamist who maintained a year-long strike of northern ports that ended after the former Islamist-led government lost power in June elections. In March last year Jathran attempted to sell oil aboard the North Korean-flagged Morning Glory, only for the US navy to board it and turn it back.
Jathran's men fought off Libya Dawn's attack on the oil ports in December, but PFG troops at Ghani still regarded themselves as neutral in the conflict. Their main problem was lack of equip-ment, with both Tripoli and Tobruk more focused on fighting each other than guarding oil facilities.

"The PFG has been subject to the push and pull of political forces, it has suffered significant disinvestment," said a former Tripoli-based diplomat. "With the resources it has, the PFG can't cover all the ports and pipelines and fields."

The Ghani detachment were mostly former rebel militiamen who had fought in the 2011 uprising and then, like tens of thousands of unemployed young men, joined state security forces. They felt secure from IS because they believed Libya Dawn controlled the few roads in the area. "We felt safe, Dawn had the checkpoints, we had no need to worry," one of the two guards who survived the attack told Petroleum Economist.

Eight of his comrades were rounded up and beheaded, using a meat knife

The 6 March dawned like any other day. The guard, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was off-duty and in civilian clothes, lounging by the gate in the early afternoon, when a convoy of jeeps came around the low hills. Some of the jeeps had military emblems, he said, adding several bore the markings of local oil companies, but the black flags mounted on the flat beds told him this was not an official visit.

"They were wearing masks, I couldn't see their faces," said the guard. "Some of them grabbed me.  They were in masks but I could tell where they were from by their accents. One was Moroccan, one Tunisian, one was from sub-Saharan Africa, the other was Libyan. They took my phone and shouted "What are you doing here?" So I said I was a cook, a worker, I didn't say I was a guard."

His claim to be a cook saw an abrupt change in his captors. Two gave him money, one adding a bar of chocolate. Then they tied him up and he was forced to watch as eight of his comrades were rounded up and beheaded, using a meat knife. "There was a lot of screaming and shouting, it was chaos," he said.

Gunmen swarmed over the plant, and the guard watched nine foreigners, including the 39-year-old Austrian plant manager, being marched out to a minibus IS had driven to the field facilities. 

Gunmen ransacked the plant, hunting for anyone in hiding, until at 6pm, when, with the light fading, they untied their captives and drove off into the desert.

The two guards, alone in the plant, hiked the almost 50km to the main highway where a passing motorist, unaware of the attack, gave them a ride to Zella. From there, they raised the alarm.

Those alarm bells have been ringing ever since. VAOS confirmed the nine hostages comprise a Bangladeshi, Czech and Ghanaian nationals, four Filipinos and the Austrian plant manager. It has yet to comment on the status of the two remaining foreigners and three Libyan workers it says were at the plant. The Libyan guard told Petroleum Economist he does not remember seeing them after IS left.

Oil companies operating in the Sirte basin are tight-lipped about staffing in the region, but Libyan sources indicate there has since been a rapid exodus.

"I'm amazed that the guys from VAOS were still there," said John Hamilton, a director of London's Cross Border Information. "IS had been moving ever deeper into the region, what warning did they need?"

From its headquarters in Austria, VAOS said it had no 'direct' warning of the attack. 

"In the light of information provided by our security provider and local contacts, VAOS had ordered the evacuation of both their Ghani and Zella sides early afternoon on Friday, 6 March," the compa-ny said in a statement. "Sadly for those in Ghani, they were surrounded and abducted by armed militia before they could evacuate."

Oil analysts say the next fields in IS' path are Attahaddy, Libya's largest gasfield, and Hateba, the second largest, along with a third gasfield, Assamoud, all operated by state-owned Sirte Oil Company. Their gas provides the bulk of the electricity for the Sirte basin's oil industry, and for all east-ern Libya.

"NOC cannot lose those central fields, if they do it's game over," said Hamilton. "The PFG have to concentrate any weaponry, any military assets, on those central fields, because if those places fall, then the east doesn't have gas, doesn't have electrical power, and then it's a humanitarian crisis."

Some think the Ghani attack will have far-reaching consequences, forcing western oil firms to pull out completely.

"The Sirte basin fields are sitting duck targets, it's a devil's own job to protect oilfields against highly mobile forces," said Philip Stack, principal Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft. "Look at In Amenas," he said, referring to BP's Algerian gas plant, which was attacked by jihadists in 2014, leaving 55 hostages dead. "At In Amenas, the security plan was relatively well organised, you had layers of protection, the Algerians were no slouches and still the attack happened. Libya has not got those kind of military resources."

With no news of the fate of the hostages, Austrian and Czech diplomats have travelled to Tripoli. The UN has refused Libya's request to lift its arms embargo, allowing the import of tanks and helicopters to combat IS, with diplomats concerned the government will use new weapons against Libya Dawn, worsening the civil war. 

The good news for Libya is that production is at 500,000 b/d, down from the pre-war 1.45 million b/d but above December's 300,000 b/d. Despite NOC being split, with its leadership in Tobruk and its bureaucracy taking orders from Libya Dawn in Tripoli, oil was still being exported and sold. On 17 March, however, Libya's internationally recognised government, based in Benghazi, said all oil sales must be made via a state company based in the eastern city, rather than Tripoli-based NOC. "The government confirms that any contracting or sale outside the legal framework represented by NOC headed by Mabrouk Bou Seid and based in Benghazi is considered a violation," a spokesman told Reuters. Set against that are fears that IS will continue its offensive.

Whether IS intends to smash Libya's oil sector is something only its commanders know. Politically, foreign powers don't want to assist in the battle against IS until there is an end to the civil war be-tween the government and Libya Dawn. But a UN push for a unity government is floundering over the question of division of power, with Tobruk complaining Libya Dawn should not get more power than their 10% support in the June elections entitles them to. 

For now, it is likely Libya's oil sector will have to rely on the outgunned PFG to defend it.

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