Ras Lanuf: Can Haftar secure Libya’s Oil?
January 9, 2020
January 9, 2020
Libya’s security and political outlook is complex. Since the ousting of Gheddafi in October 2011, the country has been involved in a never-ending spiral of internal conflicts. A civil war erupted in 2014, and in October of the same year, ISIS-backed jihadist militias started their operations, carrying on a prolonged insurgency against the fragile Libyan institutions and business assets, including oil terminals. Since March 2016, when Al-Serraj UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) arrived in Tripoli, Libya has been going down the path of a possible and irreversible political division. Nowadays, the UN-backed government of Al Serraj took the control, albeit weak, of Tripoli (location) and its surroundings, while the Field Marshal Haftar conquered Cyrenaica (location) and Fezzan (location), thanks to Libyan National Army (LNA). The new Lybian status quo influences business, and it is essential for whoever wants to carry on business activities in the country to understand who has the dominant military position on the seas and lands surrounding Ras Lanuf oil terminal (location).
Usually, analysts believe that Field Marshal Haftar enjoys an indisputable military superiority on the field. Contrarily, the difficulties the LNA is facing in Tripoli may tell a different story about the real strength of Haftar’s private Army. In the end, the forces deployed by LNA and GNA are more or less even. However, Ras Lanuf oil terminal (location) is located in the Gulf of Sidra coastline (location), and it lies in the territory under Haftar’s control. Harouge Oil Operations, a joint operating company on behalf of National Oil Operation (NOC), operates the Ras Lanuf terminal.
Still, port’s security is provided by Haftar’s ground forces and LNA’s military vessels. LNA flagship vessel Al-Karama is usually deployed in patrolling missions in Ras Lanuf. The warship is armed with a Bofors 40mm cannon and two Rheinmetall Rh202 20mm heavy machine guns. Besides, the Libyan Coast Guard obtained pictures of a French warship stationing in Ras Lanuf for three hours, raising the doubts of a French direct, despite unlikely, military involvement. Currently, there is no immediate security threat for tankers approaching the terminal. Moreover, Ras Lanuf is recovering from a blow up it had suffered in June 2018, when the storage capacity had been cut by 400,000 barrels amid fighting between militant factions. In September 2019, the NOC had added 500,000 barrels of crude oil capacity. A safer security environment and a rapid industrial recovery make Ras Lanuf, one of the biggest Libyan oil terminal, an attractive economic opportunity for the oil industry. Nevertheless, a tanker approaching the Ras Lanuf oil terminal must, as a first and general step, coordinate thoroughly with both LNA and GNA.
However, given Haftar’s direct control of Ras Lanuf, it is advisable to dedicate more attention to the LNA. In the past, several tankers were bombed or seized by Libyan authorities while approaching or leaving oil terminals. In January 2015, the Greek oil tanker ARAEVO was suspected of transporting Islamist terrorists to the port of Derna (location), and warplanes bombed it. On the one hand, military authorities stated that the tanker was entering into a military zone and failed to submit to inspection before entering the port. On the other hand, the crew aboard the ARAVEVO said that they were only delivering heavy fuel Derna’s power plant. Two crewmen died in the attack. In May 2015, the Libyan tanker Anwar Afriqya was bombed in the port of Sirte (location). Military authorities suspected that the tanker was smuggling weapons and ammunition to a rebel faction in the city, and jets warned the ship to stop. According to the military, when the tanker didn’t comply with the orders, the warplanes bombed the ship. According to sources in the NOC, the tanker had been carrying diesel fuel for Sirte’s power plant. Getting involved in these situations, where a misunderstanding can lead to loss of lives and economic damage, can be highly risky. Being compliant with the orders, maintaining a low profile, and understanding what faction may be dominant in the area the tanker is passing, is of utmost importance.
Despite the current relatively safe environment, Ras Lanuf’s oil terminal has suffered several attacks by different militant factions since the outbreak of Libyan disorders and civil war in 2011. The attacks had undermined the terminal’s economic capacities, its business operability, and the security of tankers entering or leaving the port. In January 2016, ISIS-backed jihadist militias carried on(carried out) a hit-and-run attack on Ras Lanuf oil terminal, using machine guns and setting ablaze two oil tanks. The damages to Ras Lanuf assets were immense, as this satellite image show. The militias came from the city of Sirte (location), just 216 km from Ras Lanuf. Given the importance of Sirte in the jihadi insurgency in North Africa, it was considered the ISIS’ third capital. In June 2016, GNA militias defeated ISIS in his last stronghold in Sirte, taking back control of the Ras Lanuf oil terminal. Among the armies that took part in the Battle of Sirte against ISIS, there were the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG), a paramilitary group led by Ibrahim Jadhran. In 2013, the PFG took control of the eastern oil terminals, including Ras Lanuf, but they became unpopular when they demanded money to end a port blockade.
However, the situation rapidly changed with the rise of Field Marshal Haftar. In September 2016, the LNA ousted PFG from Ras Lanuf and took control of the oil terminal. In March 2017, Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDC), anti-Haftar Islamist militia from Benghazi, stormed Ras Lanuf oil terminal and expelled the LNA. The Brigades were well equipped and heavy-armed, having used both radars to neutralize airplanes and tanks. The situation rapidly changed, and in the same month, Khalifa Haftar launched a counter-offensive, gaining back the control of Ras Lanuf. For one year, Haftar has maintained the control over the oil terminal, but on 14 June 2018 Jadhran militias went rogue and reconquered Ras Lanuf. The attack destroyed two tanks, the No. 2 and 12, reducing oil storage capacity by 400,000 barrels, from 950,000 to 550,000 barrels. As it happened when Haftar took back the control of Ras Lanuf from the Benghazi Brigades, the Field Marshal’s reaction against Jadhran was rapid and effective.
At the end of June 2018, the LNA, with suspected support from UAE air force, defeated Jadhran and regained the control of Ras Lanuf, maintaining it until nowadays. As mentioned above, the situation is stable, and Ras Lanuf oil storage capacity is gaining momentum. However, circumstances can rapidly change, and a tanker approaching Ras Lanuf must monitor thoroughly any unrest around the terminal. Currently, the LNA forces are concentrating their firepower in the attack on Tripoli (Operation Flood of Dignity), leaving a security vacuum in the zones around the oil terminal. Despite the GNA ousting ISIS from Sirte and now Haftar cracking down on them in the Fezzan, ISIS in Libya is very resilient, and it can gain rapidly a foothold in Sirte. From Sirte, it will be easy to attack Ras Lanuf. Moreover, Jahdran can take advantage of the situation and take back control of the Ras Lanuf oil terminal.
Also, there are several legal and compliance risks when approaching the Libyan oil terminals, mostly related to oil smuggling and international sanctions. The loading, transporting, or discharging petroleum, including crude oil and refined petroleum products, illicitly exported or attempted to be shipped from Libya, is banned under the UN Security Council Resolution 2146 (2014). According to the Resolution, only the NOC can sell crude oil. When Haftar conquered Ras Lanuf oil terminal in June 2018, he handled the control of all eastern Libyan oil terminals to a Benghazi-based NOC, a move which was deemed by the internationally recognized Tripoli-based NOC as illegal. LNA tried to sell oil through the Benghazi-based NOC, but the tankers approaching eastern oil terminals were blocked by foreign vessels. Haftar was left unable to cash on his control of oil terminals. In July 2019, Haftar handled back the operational control of eastern oil terminals, including Ras Lanuf, to the Tripoli-based NOC, which represents the current situation.
Jahdran, the former head of Petroleum Facilities Guards, has controlled Es Sider and Ras Lanuf terminals and tried to sell oil independently from Tripoli authorities, causing various incidents in eastern Libya. Currently, there is an arrest warrant out for Jahdran, and he is targeted by sanctions. Furthermore, Tiuboda Oil and Gas Services LLC are well known Libyan companies involved in oil smuggling. They are included in the illicit exploitation of crude oil, including the illegal production, refining, or export of Libyan oil
The areas surrounding Ras Lanuf are currently quiet and safe, and a tanker can safely approach the port. Nevertheless, the general situation in Lybia is volatile, and the security environment can degrade in a short period. Tankers need to exercise a high degree of precaution, and they must coordinate with both GNA and LNA, but mostly with the LNA navy and air forces, which are patrolling Ras Lanuf. It must avoid doing business with people under sanctions, especially Jahdran, in case he will get control over Ras Lanuf again. Tankers must deal only with the Tripoli-based NOC, buying their oil and avoid dealing with possible oil smugglers. However, if the charterers are not under particular time pressure, it is advisable to wait for the political results of the Berlin Conference. Despite a likely ineffective outcome, there is still the possibility for a short-term truce, a time window in which business activities can be even safer than now.
Image: National Oil Cooperation (link)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.
Mirko Giordani is a political risk and strategic intelligence professional. He is the host of Deep in the SEA (DITS), a podcast entirely dedicated to Southeast Asia and India. Born in Italy, Mirko graduated from LUISS University in Rome with a BA in Political Science and an MA in National Security Studies from King’s College London