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Trump repeats false claim that ISIS has 'taken over' Libyan oil

Donald Trump said again on Tuesday that the Islamic State has "taken over" oil supplies in Libya, though the terror group appears never to have controlled the country's oil nor had the ability to profit from it.

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, holds a flag and a weapon.

The GOP presidential candidate at a Virginia Beach town hall on Tuesday implied, as he has said overtly in the past, that ISIS is funding itself with vast oil wealth from Libya. Trump praised the value and quality of Libyan crude oil generally before saying it's controlled by the murderous, self-proclaimed caliphate.

"You know who's got a lot of that oil right now? ISIS," he said of Libya's crude oil supplies. "ISIS now is all over Libya, and they've taken over the oil."

ISIS has attacked oil fields in the North African country, but a number of experts who follow the terror group have pointed out that it does not have the ability to operate the handful of refineries that exist there. Militants claiming loyalty to ISIS were focused on disrupting Libya's oil operations, rather than trying to run them.

"They wanted to disrupt it, destroy it, not to run it," said Matthew Bey, an energy analyst at geopolitical risk firm Stratfor. "They had control of fields around (the city of) Sirte for a while, but they have since been mostly pushed from that area, and never had control of any upstream activity," much less ports.

David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, concurred with Bey's assessment.

"They never controlled any oil exports or sales from Libyan production," Mack said. "It's possible that they were in a position to extort money from some Libyan militia who had control over oil wells, but that would have only been indirect."

'Look at a map. Where's it going to go?'

Exact figures are impossible to pin down, but ISIS does not control nearly as much oil as it did in 2014. The self-proclaimed caliphate took vast stretches of oil-producing territory in Syria and especially Iraq in 2014, but ISIS has steadily lost territory this year to a broad array of enemies. In particular, a combination of Kurdish troops and U.S. airstrikes has hurt the group.

Unlike Syria and Iraq, Libya is so isolated geographically that even smuggling is very difficult there, though the group may sell small quantities of diesel or gasoline it steals from the country, Bey said.

"Look at a map. Where's it going to go? There's not a lot of smuggling opportunities for them there," Bey said.

Iraqi government troops have stepped up advances on ISIS-held territory in the last month, especially around Mosul, the country's second-largest city. ISIS still controls a large field near Mosul but faces challenges refining that oil or smuggling it out of Iraq.

The Islamic State holds a significant portion of Syria's oil-producing terrain, but Syria is only a minor oil producer. ISIS also steals some oil, and is believed to sneak some out of Syria and Iraq successfully.

Trump has repeatedly criticized Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her role in the overthrow of former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, though in 2011 he stated his support for the military action that toppled the dictator.

Trump also on Tuesday repeated his argument that the United States should have "kept" the oil it controlled when it invaded Iraq in 2003.