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What Today’s Bloody Attack in Tripoli Means for Libya

If the Islamic State is really behind today's attack on a Tripoli hotel, the leaders of Libya's pro-Islamist faction will find themselves facing some hard choices.

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Today a group of four gunmen attacked a hotel in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Media outlets are reporting that at least five foreigners (including one U.S. citizen) and three local guards have been killed. The attackers, wearing bulletproof vests and combat gear, detonated two car bombs outside the hotel before entering the building. At one point the gunmen took several hostages, who were later released unharmed. One of the attackers is said to have detonated an explosive vest he was wearing on the hotel’s 21st floor. (The photo above shows security forces rushing to the Corinthia Hotel shortly after the shooting began.)

The circumstances and background of the attack remain unclear. Early reports from social media attribute it to the Islamic State, which is said to have staged it as an act of revenge for the death of Nazih al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, in a U.S. hospital this month. Libi, an alleged former al Qaeda operative, was snatched by the CIA in 2013 for his alleged role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Those two bombings killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands more.

The Islamic State has become more visible in western and southern Libya in recent weeks after months of fierce fighting in the eastern city of Benghazi, where it has faced troops led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Militant Islamist groups in the east are facing increasing pressure from the national army and security apparatus, which is loyal to the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. (Most of the country’s Islamist militias are fighting on the side of the rival, Tripoli-based government — whose head, Omar al-Hassi, is said to have been a guest in the Corinthia Hotel at the time of the attack.) The army has successfully ratcheted up the pressure on militant groups in the east by cutting off their supplies and surrounding the areas in which they operate. The success of these operations has likely pushed many Islamic State militants and others to shift to other areas of the country.

The attack in Tripoli today, Jan. 27, underlines the huge threat from extremist groups throughout Libya. As Libyan delegations meet in Geneva for a second round of internationally mediated talks in a bid to find a political settlement to end the ongoing crisis in Libya, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State continue to destabilize the situation, recently even capturing the eastern city of Derna. And while militias continue to battle each other west of Tripoli, Islamic State fighters have managed to strike at the heart of the capital with car bombs and suicide bombers, fueling the cycle of destabilization.

All of the parties participating in the Geneva talks need to acknowledge the real threat that groups like the Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia pose to the future of the country, and any potential agreement must ensure a commitment by all parties to mechanisms to counter the rise of terrorist groups by strengthening the professional army and police forces. This will ensure that the war on terror is conducted under civilian oversight and with the approval of the international community.

It’s likely that Islamic State fighters will press ahead with their attacks against targets in Tripoli and other communities in the west (including the relatively safe city of Misrata) as they seek to broaden their presence, following the example set by the rapid territorial expansion of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq last year. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks on the Algerian Embassy in Tripoli and on the diplomatic security headquarters in the city.

Hassi’s government in Tripoli, and the 30 or so Islamist members of the old interim parliament who back it, will find themselves in a difficult position after this attack, which showed that Islamic State fighters were perfectly willing to put Hassi himself in danger. Hassi and his government have on multiple occasions denied the presence of the Islamic State in Libya, and they have been known to describe Ansar al-Sharia, an internationally designated terrorist group, as “simple, beautiful, and amiable.” Indeed, Hassi’s government officials, including his political advisor and controversial Islamist figure Mohamed Bayou, are denying the Islamic State’s involvement in the latest Tripoli attack despite the group’s claims of responsibility on various jihadi social media accounts. Hassi’s government has issued a statement blaming the attack on “Qaddafi regime loyalists” working for Haftar. Haftar, an army general, has been leading a military campaign against Islamist militants on behalf of the Tobruk government since May 2014.

The state of denial by Hassi and his allies has its roots in their belief that acknowledging the existence of groups like the Islamic State would reinforce the position of the army and Haftar. They see Haftar as their No. 1 enemy in Libya, and they have correspondingly clung to the notion that the enemy of their enemy is their friend. Now, however, the Islamic State has sent a clear message that it is the friend of no one, apart from those who pledge unconditional allegiance to it.

Terrorist groups like the Islamic State thrive on instability and the fragmentation of society. Libya is currently in a state of civil war in which factions that fought alongside each other to overthrow the Qaddafi regime are now fighting each other. This civil war is creating a fertile environment for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia to flourish and expand. United and stable countries might stand a chance of defeating terrorism, but a deeply divided country like ours, gripped by conflicts over power and resources, has little chance of coping with the problem. Libya’s leaders in Geneva must realize this harsh reality and offer compromises in order to form a unity government that can tackle the terrorist groups that are now the biggest threat to the future of the country.

Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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