The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s false claim that the Islamic State is ‘making a fortune’ on Libyan oil

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

“Right now, Libya, as you know, has fantastic oil, some of the finest oil in the world. Who has the oil? ISIS has the oil. Do we blockade it, do we bomb it, do we do anything? No. ISIS is making a fortune now in Libya.”

— Donald Trump, interview on NBC’s “Today” show, April 21, 2016

GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, in his appearance on the “Today” show, was critical of the U.S. intervention in Libya, calling it a “Hillary Clinton deal” to get rid of Libya’s then-dictator, Moammar Gaddafi. “We would have been better off if we never looked at the Middle East for the last 15 years,” Trump asserted.

Okay, we realize five years is a long time, so perhaps we should ignore the fact that in 2011 Trump himself, in a video blog unearthed by BuzzFeed, urged an intervention to topple Gaddafi. “Gaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people,” Trump said then. “Now we should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives.”

Instead, let’s look at Trump’s factual accuracy concerning the status of Libya’s oil now, which he correctly notes is considered high-quality crude. Does the terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have control of oil fields and is it “making a fortune now in Libya”?

The Facts

The toppling of Gaddafi — at the hands of Libyan rebels aided by U.S. and NATO air power — has led to highly unstable governance as the country’s tribes have vied for influence and power. There are rival governments based in the capital of Tripoli and the eastern city of Tobruk, and neither has fully recognized the “unity” government established by United Nations mediators.

The National Oil Corporation (NOC) claims to be operating independently without taking orders from either of the country’s rival governments, though a rival NOC appears to have been set up in the east.

ISIS has attempted to step into the power vacuum. But not a single expert or news article that we consulted said that ISIS has grabbed a single oil field. Instead, militants appear to be trying to disrupt the flow of oil, mainly by scaring workers away.

Claudia Gazzini, a Tripoli-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it was simply not true that the Islamic State has control of any Libyan oil.

“While it is true that ISIS has attacked oil fields in the Sirte basin area and destroyed key equipment there, they have not sought to keep control of the oil fields,” Gazzini said. “At the moment they appear to have adopted a hit-and-run strategy. There is no evidence that they are pumping out the crude oil and certainly no evidence that they are trading it. At the moment they just appear interested in starving the Libyan state of oil revenues.”

She added that ISIS’s propaganda mentions the aspiration to one day control Libya’s oil sector “but that seems like a long term strategy rather than an immediate one.”

An official close to the Libyan oil industry, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed Trump’s claim as ridiculous. “This is just a bunch of fantasies,” he said.

A review of recent news articles confirms that while some fields have been temporarily closed in response to Islamic State attacks, not a single field has been taken by the terrorist group.

As usual, the Trump campaign did not respond to a query asking for an explanation of his statements.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump’s penchant for exaggeration continues unabated. The terror group’s activities have at times disrupted the flow of oil. But contrary to Trump’s claim on national television, the Islamic State does not control any oil fields and is not “making a fortune” from Libyan oil.

But what do you expect from a man who appears to have conveniently forgotten that he urged an intervention in Libya to topple the country’s leader?

Four Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Check out our 2016 candidates fact-check page

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter