ISIS eyes oil assets beyond Syria: US

Smoke rising in the distance behind an ISIS flag and banner in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Smoke rising in the distance behind an ISIS flag and banner in Kirkuk, Iraq. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is looking at potentially vulnerable oil assets in Libya and elsewhere outside its Syrian stronghold, where the militant group controls about roughly 80 per cent of the oil and gas fields, a senior American official has said.

The official, who briefed reporters in Washington on condition of anonymity on Tuesday, said the United States was carefully examining who controlled oil fields, pipelines, trucking routes and other infrastructure in places that could be vulnerable to attack.

Those include areas in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula, according to the official.

"They are looking at the oil assets in Libya and elsewhere. We will be prepared," the official said.

The US has estimated that each month, ISIS is selling as much as US$40 million (S$56 million) worth of oil, which is spirited on trucks across the battle lines of the Syrian civil war and sometimes farther.

The US-led coalition that has been bombing ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria since August last year has started targeting fuel tankers that move oil around Syria and provide ISIS fighters with vital funding.

In just two strikes last month, coalition planes destroyed about 400 tankers that were lined up in the desert waiting to take on illicit oil. The military warned truck drivers ahead of the strikes, giving them a chance to flee.

The US official said the strikes had shown anecdotal signs of raising the costs of ISIS' oil operations.

"The costs of the operation have gone up, and the ability to move it around has gone down," the official said.

"It is definitely hurting ISIL," the official added, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

Crude oil prices are barely above recent lows set during the depths of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Worldwide, oil prices have declined more than 50 per cent since they began dropping in June last year.

Low oil prices could be a double- edged sword in the fight against ISIS, helping to reduce revenue the militant group gets in Syria, but potentially accentuating vulnerabilities as companies elsewhere lay off workers.

Some of the oil workers in ISIS-held territory are foreigners, the official said.

"The reduction in oil prices actually adds another element of insecurity because companies have less money to spend on a variety of things," the official added.

"There are more oil and gas employees... who are out of work... so they are easier targets to recruit around the world."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS eyes oil assets beyond Syria: US'. Print Edition | Subscribe