The Economist – Jan 31st, 2015
Attack in Tripoli
Islamic State Heads West
Jihadists move into Libya’s capital by storming the country’s largest hotel
Jan 31st 2015 | TRIPOL
ISLAMIC State’s new branch in Libya could have picked few more eye-catching ways to stage its debut in the capital, Tripoli, than with an attack on a landmark building, the seafront Corinthia hotel. The attackers combined a commando raid on its marble-clad lobby with a car bomb that exploded as guests fled, and the capture of hostages on the 21st floor. The attack killed at least nine people, including five foreigners, one of them American.
The luxury Corinthia hotel, which is Maltese-owned, had somehow managed to sidestep sanctions and wars. The haven it provided made it a favorite of foreign visitors, including UN officials. It even became the residence of self-declared prime minister, Omar al-Hassi. The sanctuary has now been defiled.
In the name of its “Tripoli province”, IS claimed responsibility for what was Libya’s deadliest attack on Western interests since the raid on an American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three of his compatriots in September 2012. The jihadists named two of the assailants, a Tunisian youth and his equally fresh-faced Sudanese accomplice. They were, they said, avenging the death in American custody of an alleged al-Qaeda operative, Abu Anas al-Liby, earlier this month. They threatened that more strikes would come.
Panicky officials from Libya Dawn, a loose alliance of predominantly western Libyan and Islamist militias that is currently ruling Tripoli, blamed Khalifa Haftar, the retired general backing the internationally-recognized rival government in Libya’s east. Others accused diehard followers of the late Colonel Qaddafi, an easy if much derided catchall.
But so brazen and ruthless was the guerrilla attack on the hotel, that “after today there’s no question about whether IS has a presence in Tripoli,” says a security man based there. Hundreds of Libya Dawn’s militiamen, he notes, have gone to the battlefront many miles to the east to fight General Haftar, leaving their defenses vulnerable closer to home. At the same time IS has urged foreign fighters to head for Libya and its ungoverned spaces. In its Dabiq magazine last year, IS outlined how Libya’s chaos and abundance of arms made the country “ideal for jihad”. Tunisian militants, in particular, are said to have used Libya as a training ground before heading to Syria. In October, one carried out a suicide bombing.
The main IS stronghold in Libya was long thought to have been Derna, a port nestled between cliffs in the east, with a training camp for a few hundred of its fighters. But last month the jihadist group signalled its greater reach by capturing 20 Egyptian Christians in Sirte, a town midway between eastern and western Libya. It also claimed responsibility for destroying a checkpoint guarding the route to Mali.
More misery awaits. Some of the foreigners that IS struck worked for a Florida-based energy company, APR. They had been working on power generation for an electricity network plagued by power cuts. Even before the attack they were preparing to leave. Bereft of power, Libya’s water supply, which is pumped along the Great Man-Made River, will run dry. Foreign airlines have already withdrawn, while ships bringing food and fuel think twice before docking at Libya’s ports.
At least the hotel attack might prove “a wake-up call,” says the UN envoy, Bernardino León, who is shepherding talks on reuniting the country’s splintered factions in Geneva. “The country is really about to collapse.” Only a unity government, he says, can tackle the IS threat. A meeting of rival militia leaders began on January 29th, with talks planned to resume in Libya in early February between the politicians, including hitherto recalcitrant representatives from Libya Dawn. With the crucial exception of Benghazi, Libya’s second city in the east, fighting has largely subsided since the UN brokered a country-wide ceasefire. IS’s attempt to exploit the vacuum of a failing state could tip it back into conflict.