In the most recent episode of insecurity in Libya, a rebel militia hijacked a Libyan oil vessel and transferred it to an unauthorized oil tanker.
The eastern Libyan rebel militia led by Ibrahim Jathran has successfully maintained control over some of Libya’s oil terminals since July 2013, but until last week it was unable to transfer and sell the oil.
Despite repeated threats from the government in Tripoli, the rebel-held oil terminal successfully transferred oil to a North Korean–flagged and Arab-owned oil tanker under the command of Libyan militia leaders. The ship successfully evaded a Libyan-enforced naval blockade in the port of Sidra in order to sell the oil on the black market.
The situation prompted the Libyan parliament to dismiss Prime Minister Ali Zeidan (although he claims it was unlawful), and both the governments of Libya and Cyprus (because the ship was in Cypriot waters at the time) had to request U.S. support to regain control of the ship and the stolen oil.
The U.S. considered the oil to be stolen from the Libyan people and property of the Libyan national oil company and its joint partners, which includes American companies.
On March 10, U.S. Navy Seals seized the ship and “captured three armed Libyans described by the ship’s captain as the hijackers.” The Libyan militiamen are in U.S. custody, and the oil is in the process of being returned to the government of Libya.
The ability of the rebel-controlled militias, as well as the Islamist militants in Libya, to undermine the authority of the Libyan government in Tripoli underscores the serious challenges that the Libyan government faces.
It’s not just about maintaining control over oil revenues; it’s about the balance of power and the government’s ability to maintain law and order in a deeply disconnected Libyan society. Ethnic tensions, weapons proliferation, mobilized militia groups, and the limited state security infrastructure ensure that the country’s vast oil wealth remains a bone of contention between independent militias and Libya’s weak government. The illicit oil situation is just one example of how insecure Libya continues to remain in the post–Muammar Qadhafi era.