June 3, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Critical Resource Power of the Islamic State

• From seizing a vital dam in Ramadi, or gas fields in central Syria, and now parts of the world’s largest water irrigation project in Sirte, Libya, the Islamic State is using critical resources and infrastructure in unprecedented fashion

• The group prioritizes accumulating and holding territory; water, irrigation, hydroelectricity; and oil and minerals

• By attacking and either holding or destroying contested oil facilities and other industries, the Islamic State ensures that no one else benefits from them.


Lost in the discussion of areas under the control or influence of the Islamic State is the group’s deliberate and effective strategy to target critical resources and infrastructure not just to materially gain from them but also to wield them as weapons. The group is pursuing a target list that includes earth, water, and fire, with tragic success in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya.

The most visible part of that target list is earth; the vast swathes of territory the group continues to hold and expand only one year after it stormed Mosul. The ground conquests are the easiest to grasp, with entire cities and populations under control or threat, providing clear measurements of the group’s violent reach. Somewhat less obvious but just as important are the agricultural systems that the group takes over—from the farms to the market. Before it was driven from the Syrian border town of Kobani, the vast wheat fields and silos were an irresistible target for the group, since there are few levers of power more controlling than food and the livelihoods of those who produce it. It also controls the wheat distribution route between Syria and Nineveh Province in Iraq.

But the water and fire targets, while harder to visualize, drive the Islamic State’s territorial decisions in many ways, and have huge impacts on the daily lives of the populations and forces opposing the group’s expansion.

In the arid lands where the Islamic State fights, control of water is the ultimate weapon of terror, allowing it to manipulate supplies of drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectricity. Yesterday the Islamic State shut down the Ramadi dam and cut water off to the neighboring districts of al-Habbiniyah and al-Khalidiyah—the former being precisely where the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and militias are organizing to retake Ramadi. The group is still threatening the much larger Haditha dam, where the U.S. first concentrated airstrikes last September in a desperate attempt to keep the group from seizing an installation of such strategic value. Likewise, in Syria, the group controls part of the Euphrates river that runs through the agriculturally important area of Raqqa (though the Turkish government has much more control over the river’s flow since it is upstream).

Most recently, in Libya, the group’s wilayat, or self-proclaimed state, took full control of the important coastal city of Sirte. Beyond the symbolic value of taking the hometown of deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi is the practical value of controlling critical parts of the largest water/irrigation project in the world—the Great Man-Made River Project. This immense collection of underground pipes and above-ground reservoirs supplies water to Tripoli in the west, centrally-located Sirte, and Benghazi to the east. If the group maintains control over the Sirte part of the system, it will grant enormous leverage to the group.

As much as life depends on water, modern machinery, economies, and fighting forces depend on oil and byproducts—the primary targets of the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya. The ongoing, nearly year-long, battle between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces in the refinery town of Bayji shows the determination of the group to either seize the immense benefits of the refinery for themselves or, failing that, deny those benefits to the Iraqi government and people. In Syria, the group’s seizure of the crucial towns of Palmyra and Tadmur not only put more people under the group’s murderous rule and priceless antiquities at risk of looting or destruction; it also put the important Arak and al-Hail gas fields near Palmyra into the hands of the Islamic State. These two gas fields supply a large percentage of electricity to western parts of Syria that are still contested, meaning the group controls even more of the oil and gas power-generating capability of Syria. Near Sirte in Libya, the group has attacked several oil fields, taking them off-line to make sure that if it couldn’t have them, no one would.

By targeting the commanding heights of not just strategic hills but of the basic levers of the economy and life, the Islamic State is wielding weapons of critical resources and infrastructure at an unprecedented scale. Efforts to remove the group from these sources of earth, water, and fire will have to be done in a manner that doesn’t destroy the resources and infrastructure in the process. This will prove to be as difficult as it is important and needed.


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