Transitions

Why Libya’s Militants Are Kidnapping Diplomats – And Why We Can’t Give In

Why Libya’s Militants Are Kidnapping Diplomats – And Why We Can’t Give In

At least nine Libyan soldiers were killed in the early hours of Friday morning, and dozens injured, after clashes broke out between Ansar al Sharia militants and other Islamist militants. In addition, three Libyan soldiers were killed Tuesday morning, and two others injured, after a suicide bomber blew up his car at the entrance of an army brigade headquarters in the city of Benghazi. Meanwhile, the Jordanian ambassador to Libya and a senior Tunisian diplomat are still being held by extremist groups weeks after being abducted from the capital Tripoli. The wave of kidnappings targeting diplomatic missions is yet another extremely worrying development in post-revolution Libya. The incident involving the Jordanian ambassador started two weeks ago, when gunmen ambushed his vehicle, wounded his driver, and abducted him. A few days later, a senior Tunisian diplomat was also taken from his residence in Tripoli.

In return for releasing the diplomats, the kidnappers demanded the release of Libyan extremists held in Jordan and Tunisia. The authorities seem unable to cope with the situation at hand, despite earlier promises to upgrade security arrangements for diplomatic missions in Libya. The problem may well have something to do with a tendency within the government to downplay the threat from jihadist groups linked to the local al Qaeda franchise. After attacks on various diplomatic missions in Libya over the last two years, including those of countries such as the United States, France, Egypt, Sweden, and Tunisia, these latest incidents show a new trend in the tactics used by jihadist groups in Libya. The influence of extremist groups in Libya is likely to increase significantly over the coming years if the current state of insecurity and political turmoil continues unresolved.

Over the last few weeks, the government has stated repeatedly that the diplomats are alive and in good health — conclusions apparently based on contacts with the kidnappers. However, remarks from former government officials, including former Minister of Interior Fawzi Abdulaal, seem to highlight a very worrying reality in post-revolution Libya. Abdulaal said that the country has been infiltrated by al Qaeda-linked groups, and that many sympathizers with extremists groups now hold prominent government offices, especially in the defense and security sectors. Infiltration of the government could help explain its manifest inability to address the issue of rebuilding the national army and police forces. This is raising fears among Libya’s friends in the West who have pledged to train thousands of soldiers and security personnel to help the country establish a strong and modern army and police force.

Over the past two years, extremist groups have conducted an assassination campaign that has targeted army and security officers, activists, judges, journalists, and even children. Now the militants are targeting countries that helped the Libyan people during their struggle to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The tactics used by these groups are evolving rapidly, and the fragmented authorities seem to be unable to face up to these groups alone. This appears unlikely to change in the near future, given the current reports.

The international community must step up their efforts and rethink their strategy of engagement with Libyan partners. On Tuesday, Giovanni Pinto, the Italian border police chief, warned that help provided to Libya could potentially have negative effects. It is crucial that western help and assistance to the Libyan government should be carefully considered to ensure that it does not end up in the wrong hands. In addition, the international community should develop realistic strategies to counter the activities of the groups, which are attempting to derail Libya’s democratic transition and oppose democratic values in the country.

But there’s another point that needs to be made here: Libyan authorities and their international partners must start working on political solutions to many of the country’s woes rather than relying solely on technical assistance, as has been the case in the last two years. Extremist groups are exploiting the political turmoil in the country to further their extremist ideology. It is this political uncertainty that allows the militants to execute their plans in Libya. 

The Libyan militant group Ansar al Sharia issued a statement this week stating that democracy is kufr, or "disbelief," and thus contradicts Islamic teachings. Ansar al Sharia prevented the Constituent Assembly elections from taking place in the city of Derna earlier this year by bombing some polling places, thus shutting all of them down. It is crucial to prevent terrorists using these kidnappings to obtain concessions or the satisfaction of their demands. It is also the future of Libya’s democracy that is being held hostage here.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.