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Geopolitics

Has ISIS Really Arrived In Libya?

Deadly attacks in Tripoli are prompting fears that ISIS is spreading north and west. Others however warn of the spectre of a "counter-revolution" of Gaddafi nostalgics similar to what's happened in Egypt.

Bullet hole left by the Jan. 27 attack on Tripoli's Corinthia Hotel
Bullet hole left by the Jan. 27 attack on Tripoli's Corinthia Hotel
Jean-Philippe Rémy

TRIPOLI — Last week's terrorist attack on Tripoli's luxury Corinthia hotel was a brazen operation, killing nine people, including a French pilot working for a local firm, his Korean co-pilot, two Filipino air hostesses, a U.S. national working for a security firm and at least four Libyan security staff working at the hotel.

But the Jan. 27 assault was not mere random violence. At about 8 a.m., the group forced their way into the hotel facing the old city walls, and used a car bomb to blow up its security barrier and a sentry post, which set several more cars on fire. Penetrating the hotel's vast entrance lobby, the attackers opened fire in the hotel café where where most of their victims died.

At that point, the assailants proceeded upstairs looking for Omar al-Hasi, prime minister of the "National Salvation" government, an offshoot of the Fajr Libya or Libyan Dawn Alliance. It is not the government recognized by the international community but is currently engaged in UN sponsored talks with the other Libyan coalition affiliated with General Khalifa Haftar's Operation Karama (Dignity) and the recognized Libyan authorities presently ensconced in the eastern district of Cyrenaica. Fajr Libya security people had already led al-Hasi out of the hotel.

"We know they're there"

A group calling itself the Tripoli branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility on Twitter. Its declaration praised the "heroes of the Caliphate" and termed the attack the "battle of Abu Anas al-Libi," referring to a Libyan member of al-Qaeda, Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Ruqai, who helped organize the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Dawn fighters in Kikia, Libya — Photo: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/ZUMA

Initially sent to Libya to create an al-Qaeda base, a U.S. team caught al-Ruqai in Tripoli in October 2013 and sent him to the United States, where he died last month of Hepatitis C complications, ahead of his trial. Twitter again displays pictures of two men, described as Tunisian and Sudanese, and cites them as the purported hotel attackers.

Experts are now asking if indeed ISIS is truly present on the ground in Tripoli, beyond the claims it makes online. It took responsibility for several attacks and incidents in preceding days, including a Jan. 17 bomb that exploded outside the Algerian embassy (shut like all embassies but Italy's), injuring three guards. Days later, a fire broke out in the big Souk Talata shopping center. This was then claimed as an attack, surprisingly, after being initially qualified as an accidental explosion due to bad wiring in a bakery. The offices of the United Nations Development Program, also empty after its staff left Libya, were then sprayed with machine gun fire.

Several sources have told Le Monde that militant cells may have indeed infiltrated the city. One source expressed fear that so-called "ghosts" — terrorists who were present but never visible — were ready to perpetrate some violent act in the capital.

ISIS is present in Libya in Derna (Cyrenaica), where the Islamic Youth Shura Council officially declared its allegiance to the group in October 2014. In early January another group claiming ties to ISIS declared it had killed a dozen soldiers from the former regular army, this time in southern Libya.

Libyan Dawn authorities recently said they did not consider these groups to be a threat, especially in Tripoli. Days before the attack, Omar al-Hasi spoke to Le Monde in another hotel, not the Corinthia where he narrowly escaped death, and dismissed with a smile the suggestion of Salafists setting up shop in Libya.

Propaganda?

Abdulrahman Sewehli, a politician from Misrata and influential member of Libyan Dawn, stated at his home in Tripoli that talk of ISIS in Libya was just "propaganda" being spread by General Haftar's supporters. The "so-called terrorists," he said, "are thuwar (militiamen who fought Colonel Gaddafi in 2011).

"It is the same people, they haven't changed. But now it suits our enemies to call them that," Sewehli said.

He says that claims of militant groups being present in southern Libya, made by several states including France really "depend on your mental perception." He said, ironically: "I asked the French ambassador (before the embassy shut) where these Jihadists were in Libya, and he could not answer me with precise details."

Recent claims about acts of violence, he added, were from "people who want to show that Tripoli is not safe."

Omar Khadrawi, the Libyan Dawn administration's security chief for Tripoli, told Al-Nabaa television on January 27 that those responsible for the Corinthia attack were "Gaddafi's revolutionary guards and (members) of pro-Gaddafi execution squads." Sewehli says Libyan Dawn authorities are fighting to protect the "fruits of the 2011 revolution" against General Haftar's coalition, which includes pro-Gaddafi elements intent on implementing a "counter-revolution like in Egypt."

Whether or not that is pure conjecture, the "ghosts" are becoming increasingly real.

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