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The Islamic State's History of Targeting Oil and Gas Supply Chains
The Mozambican wing of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) made international headlines in recent days for its assault on the gas-rich northeastern coastal town of Palma. Before the emergence of an Islamic State (IS) presence in Mozambique, attacks by IS affiliates on oil and gas targets were largely concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Through these operations, the Islamic State aims to secure sources of funding (mostly pertaining to oil) and to inflict damage on its enemies. IS groups have had varying degrees of success in controlling and disrupting energy supply chains in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Mozambique.
Iraq and Syria
The Islamic State’s organizational history dates back to the 1990s, but the movement’s success reached unprecedented heights in 2014 with its sweeping military victories and vast seizure of territory across Iraq and Syria. IS established a caliphate the size of Britain with an estimated 6-9 million inhabitants. A polity of this scale and complexity required considerable resources to sustain, making oil a strategic priority.
Iraq has the fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves in the world and accounts for 8.4% of the global share. According to one estimate, in 2014 the Islamic State “took control of more than 60 percent of the Syrian oil production and less than 10 percent of the Iraqi oil production.” Lukáš Tichý and Jan Eichler note how “IS’s shura (council) identified oil (and gas) as a key instrument for the survival of the uprising and, more importantly, as an instrument for financing its ambitions of creating and expanding a caliphate.”
The eventual rollback of caliphate territory in Iraq and Syria spurred the organization to recalibrate and employ insurgent tactics against energy targets. As the Islamic State was being pressured by coalition forces, they ignited oil fields and used the smoke as cover. In Iraq and Syria, IS militants have fired rockets at refineries, bombed pipelines and tankers, and attacked oil wells.
The Islamic State’s momentum and the caliphate’s gravitas inspired a number of jihadi groups to become affiliates and integrate into the overarching international network. This included the militant outfit Ansar al-Bait Maqdis (ABM), which became the Islamic State Sinai Province after pledging allegiance to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014.
Egypt contains the fourth-largest proven natural gas reserves in Africa, and jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula seek to disrupt the country’s energy sector and destabilize the government by attacking pipeline infrastructure in the region. The Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) is recognized as a particularly high-value target. The project comprises natural gas transportation and distribution networks that begin in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and connect to Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, with tentative plans for future extensions. Attacks on this system allow jihadists to inflict damage upon the Egyptian government as well as other declared enemies such as Jordan.
After one such bombing, the Islamic State published a statement claiming responsibility:
“In a blessed operation, IS soldiers attacked the pipeline that supplies natural gas to the apostate Jordanian government from the city of El-Arish … the jihadists will continue attacking the interests of the apostate rulers in the Middle East and their economic facilities, which they ironically use to fight Islam and the Muslims.”
IS-linked militants have also kidnapped energy workers in the region. In 2015, for instance, the group abducted and later beheaded a Croatian seismic surveyor.
The Islamic State network in Libya is unique in the sense that it appears to have existed under the IS umbrella from its very inception. In contrast, most other affiliates were already established jihadi organizations that later entered the IS fold. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially recognized the Libyan groups in November 2014.
Libya’s economy is heavily dependent on its oil sector, which, according to OPEC, accounted for 69 percent of export earnings and 60 percent of total GDP in 2019. Libya has the largest crude reserves in Africa and the tenth-largest in the world.
Islamic State elements in Libya achieved some success seizing territory as well as launching attacks against oil assets. But as Lukáš Tichý explains, the “Islamic State was unable to exploit the region's oil potential because it failed to control the Libyan oil fields in the long term.”
Although its territorial gains did not last, the network conducted a series of raids on oil fields, killed security personnel, abducted foreign nationals, damaged terminals, sabotaged pipelines, and more.
The Islamic State in Mozambique is commonly referred to as Ahlu Sunnah wa-l-Jama’ah (ASWJ) and is known locally as al-Shabab (though not to be confused with the Somalia-based militant organization). Its move towards IS association was defined by a pledge of allegiance to the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May 2018 and the first official Islamic State communiqué claiming a Mozambique operation in June 2019.
The insurgency is largely concentrated in Mozambique’s resource-abundant and predominantly Muslim northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, though there has been spillover into Tanzania. The conflict has only intensified since it began in 2017, culminating in the recent multi-pronged attack on the town of Palma.
Mozambique’s substantial natural gas deposits — the third largest in all of Africa — endow it the potential to become a significant liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, but regional insecurity hinders resource extraction efforts. Islamic State militants in Mozambique recognize the value of these projects and have sought to disrupt their operation.
IS-linked insurgents have demonstrated enhanced capabilities, yet have often been repelled from directly attacking LNG facilities by government security forces and private military contractors. However, militants have achieved some success targeting workers outside of energy project buffer zones.
A convoy near an Anadarko LNG project was ambushed in February of 2019, and gunmen reportedly killed at least eight employees from a company subcontracted by France’s Total in June of 2020.
The recent militant offensive and ongoing fighting in Palma has prompted French energy giant Total to minimize operations and evacuate staff from the region — a further blow to the Mozambique government’s campaign to develop its energy sector. Insurgents killed locals and targeted expatriate workers. Additionally, the attack has exacerbated security concerns regarding the adjacent Mozambique Channel, a high-traffic international shipping route.
- Islamic State blamed for damaging a pipeline in Yemen (2016)
- Boko Haram faction with ties to the Islamic State attacked and kidnapped a Nigerian oil prospecting team (2017)
- Islamic State claimed the bombing of a tanker bound for Taliban fighters in Nangarhar, Afghanistan (2019)
- Islamic State called for attacks on the Saudi oil industry (2020)
- Islamic State claimed an attack on an oil tanker in Pakistan (2020)