“Full steam ahead”. Eni in Libya in the time of Daesh

It is commonly accepted by various analysts’ predictions that Libya is making great steps towards becoming the new safe haven for terrorist organizations and activities. Daesh, for example, is increasingly strong and aggressive in the country. It is taking ground in many cities along the Mediterranean coast, like Sirte, Derna and Benghazi, historically a stronghold of Gaddafi. Aside from their population and geostrategic position, these cities are an important economic factor for the country, due to oil transport, and the Mediterranean coast usually serves as a starting point for migrants and refugees heading towards Europe.

With cities like these in their hands, jihadists can acquire more funds by smuggling oil, migrants or just by kidnapping people. Taking hold in Libya, Daesh is now present on two continents. Being Libya a potential gateway to Europe, the assets of Daesh are getting bigger, thanks to the oil and the wide control of the territory. In addition to this, its terrorist network is becoming wider and its militants feel so confident that they might consider moving some of the training camps from their stronghold in Syria, Raqqa, where they are slowly losing grip under the Russian bombings, to Libya.

Despite the country’s increasingly unstable security scenario and the forecasts about future developments of terrorists’ threats that are less than optimistic, the Italian oil company Eni remains the largest foreign oil and gas producer in Libya. Eni’s presence in Libya dates back to 1959, when AGIP obtained from the Libyan Government Concession No. 82, located in the eastern Sahara Desert, where in 1965 the oil field of Rimal was discovered: since then, the company never left the country. Today’s production activity is carried out in the Mediterranean Sea near Tripoli and in the Libyan Desert area, over a partially developed acreage of 26,634 square kilometers with key operating assets, including the Bu-Attifel oil field (50%) in the central eastern desert, the offshore Bouri field (30%) on Block NC 41 and the $5.6bn Western Libyan Gas Project (WLGP), which involves the development of the onshore Wafa oil, gas and condensates reserves in Block NC 169 A (50%) and offshore Block NC-41 in the Gulf of Gabes.


For the whole 2014, Eni’s facilities in Libya produced an average 239,000 boe/d, slightly more than the previous year. Last September, Eni CEO, Claudio Descalzi, raised the stakes by announcing that the company might even double its production in the country, currently set on 300,000 oil barrels per day, until 2019 under certain security conditions.

Security is indeed a major reason of concern and the main cause of the fleeing of many other international companies. Not Eni though which, albeit Descalzi’s concerns about security, has kept its predominant role almost intact since the beginning of the turmoil, despite the fact that international oil companies have been the preferred targets of Daesh attacks. Just to name a few of the most recent accidents, two oil fields were closed (Al-Nafura and Al-Majed) due to circumstances beyond the power of the guards of the fields who could not have full control of the facilities. Even more dramatic was the abduction and assassination of several members of the “Petroleum Facilities Guard” (PFG)[1] in Ajdabiya, Eastern Libya.

It is therefore natural to analyze how Eni is managing to keep producing at the same pre-crisis levels in a country that seems to be on the constant verge of total collapse. First of all, Eni takes advantage of the fact that many of its operations in Libya are offshore, an element to take into consideration as it makes it more complicated for terrorists to interfere with the company’s activities.

Secondly and more importantly, according to official Libyan sources familiar with the matter, Eni is availing itself of the help of local factions and groups engaged in the protection of its facilities throughout the Libyan territory. By exploiting the endemic country’s divisions – Libya is currently “ruled” by two official governments (Libya Dawn that controls the capital of Tripoli and an internationally recognized government in the city of Tobruk) and by a countless number of militias, controlling a few blocks or entire cities – Eni is succeeding where others have failed: keeping its revenues intact and even increasing them whereas rival oil companies such as Total SA of France, Repsol SA of Spain and Marathon Oil of the U.S., are fleeing from the country.

According to recent revelations by the “The Wall Street Journal”, in the nation’s northwest corner, an Eni pipeline carrying around 10% of Italy’s natural gas supplies stands near a jihadi training camp, but – according to what said by Libyan officials and Western security officials –  is protected by a militia called Western Shield that is part of Libya Dawn. At the Sahara outposts, according to a Libyan oil official and the Western security official, a local nomadic people called Toubou[2] has been hired to provide security, whereas the operations in the Wafa field in Libya’s south has been facilitated by the watch of youths in Zintan, a city allied with Libya Dawn’s rival in Baida, and militias drawn from the city aiding with protection.

In short, to quote the words of Libyan authorities, if other companies have generally arranged for security directly through Libya’s National Oil Co., Eni is “holding the stick in the middle” by using rival groups’ support according to where their influence is more predominant. Clearly, Eni is declining any responsibility and recently a company’s spokesman said there are no agreements with any militias in Libya and members of the staff have instead been evacuated from Libya’s mainland.

Should it be true that Eni is actually using the support of local militias for its own purposes, this divide et impera strategy is nonetheless effective: thanks to its knowledge of the territory and its main actors, built on more than a fifty-years long presence in the country and exploiting the divisions among the main parties, Eni is managing to pump gas and oil near capacity and to even make new gas discoveries. Despite that, some accidents have occurred, like the Daesh car bomb that exploded near its headquarters in Mellitah this August. Nonetheless, it is doubtless that Eni is the only large foreign company left in the country.

Truth is that albeit effective, this strategy brings along risks Eni cannot overlook forever. First of all, the volatile nature of these agreements per se, considering that the membership of local militias changes often. Secondly, and more dangerously, the potential risk that the members of a militia can be accused of human rights abuses or of being connected to terrorists, affecting in this way the reputation and the image of the company indirectly connected to them. Thirdly, on December 17, 2015, in Shikrat, Morocco, in front of the representatives of Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Qatar, Spain and Italy, 90 members of the Tobruk Congress and about 70 others[3] of the Tripoli’s government have signed an agreement aimed at establishing a unity government  considered by some a crucial first step towards the pacification of the country.[4] If that will turn out to be as a real watershed in Libyan politics, possibly leading to a more stable peace, then Eni’s allegedly ruthless behavior during the tensions might be questioned. However, the consequences for Eni should not be truly significant: as oil and gas is the real and maybe only country’s golden goose, no government will deliberately jeopardize the relationship with the most authoritative industrial partner in the country.

Obviously, though, no one can prove that the allegations of Libyan authorities accusing Eni of coming to terms with local factions are true. Until then, the company continues to proceed “full steam ahead” in Libya, proving to have found a winning solution to maintain its interests and its huge revenues in the country almost intact.

Stefania Coco Scalisi

EU Energy Expert at Patto dei Sindaci


[1] The armed government forces were tasked with defending oil infrastructure from militants after the civil war that ousted former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

[2] The Toubou were the original inhabitants of the region from around the southeastern oasis towns of Kufra, Rebiana and Buzeyma. They also live in northern Chad and Niger. Toubou people in the south has grown in recent decades, primarily because of immigration from Chad, in particular from the Tibesti region. The relative socio-economic marginalization and political disenfranchisement of the Toubou by Arabian tribes has led to increasing antagonism between the Arabic and Toubou groups. Marginalized by the regime of Gaddafi, since the end of the 2011 uprising Toubou people has expanded its influence in the southern desert region, and now has a dominant position in providing security at energy infrastructures, in border areas, and on key roads leading into Chad, Niger, and Sudan. See: https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/libyas-south-the-forgotten-frontier.

[3] 27 members were present at the meeting, but they could represent the firm as per proxy of other 42 Tripoli’s congressmen.

[4] The agreement has set forth the creation of a Presidential Committee that includes 6 personalities already indicated by the UN (the Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, three vice-premiers Maetig Ahmed Fathi Majbri Koni and Musa, and the two ministers Aswad Omar and Mohamed Ammar). This original group has been joined by three other politicians, two representing the Fezzan, southern Libya, and one of Cyrenaica, the eastern part. The hard task this Committee will undergo will be the creation of list of ministers, who will ideally form the future unity government itself, which shall be approved and settle in Tripoli within 30 days from the signing of the agreement.


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Nigro, Vincenzo. “Libia: firmato l’accordo tra le due fazioni per governo di unità nazionale,” La Repubblica, December 17, 2015. http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2015/12/17/news/libia_firmato_accordo_onu_per_governo_di_unita_nazionale-129680815/

Sylvers, Eric, and Benoît Faucon. “Libya’s War Rages but Eni Keeps Pumping Oil,” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/libyas-war-rages-but-eni-keeps-pumping-oil-1428428079

Walt, Vivienne. “Big oil companies in the cross fire as Libyan violence erupts,” Fortune, March 5, 2015. http://fortune.com/2015/03/05/libya-oil-companies-isis-fighting/

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