(Image provided by Inkerman personnel)
A sense of anxiety permeates the air in Libya, with citizens and foreign nationals expressing unease over the Maghreb nation’s deteriorating security condition. As can be expected, Libyans remain apprehensive with regard to the ability of the government to safeguard residents following another high-profile attack in a major city. This time, however, the attack did not occur in terror-prone Benghazi. It occurred in the comparatively safer capital of Tripoli, leading worried foreign interests to reconsider whether they should maintain a presence in Libya at all.
The Attack Begins
At approximately 0710hrs on 23 April 2013, a parked vehicle laden with explosives detonated outside the French Embassy, located on Tareef Ibnu Malek Road in the Hay Andalus quarter of the capital. It is now widely believed that another vehicle “caught fire” a few minutes after the initial car blast. It remains unclear if the second vehicle ignited due to the residual effects from the first explosion, or whether the second car, itself, had been laden with explosive devices. Whichever the case, thankfully, the blast occurred prior to the official start of the working day at the French Embassy, which means that casualties were minimal. This has led to suggestions that the attack was specifically timed to minimise casualties of Libyan workers at the Embassy, and had instead, been coordinated to “make a statement” as well as lead to injuries and / or fatalities of French personnel. Indeed, the Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attack resulted in the destruction of “80%” of the Embassy, and left two security guards of French nationality injured, one whom is said to be in “critical” condition. As the French Embassy is located in a residential area, however, a number of injuries sustained by Libyan nationals were also recorded as a result of the blast. According to reports, at least one teenage girl suffered spinal injuries, although she is believed to making a fully recovery in a Tunisian hospital.
Given the timed nature of the attack as well as its devastation, it is believed that the bombing had been planned well in advance. These suspicions have been corroborated by locals in the area, with some residents claiming that the attackers must have capitalised on the arguably under qualified local police, who lacked sufficient training to prepare and respond to such an assault. Indeed, one Libyan resident was quoted as saying that he regularly found local police officers “sleeping in their cars” whilst they were on duty. Meanwhile, others have reported that the bombing took place at the “exact time” night police officers were in the process of transitioning their duties to morning officers. Furthermore, the sheer devastation of the attack – the bombing also severely damaged the surrounding roads and destroyed sewage pipes – has led authorities to surmise that a large quantity of explosive material had been used. This, again, underscores the pre-planned and increasingly sophisticated nature of the attack.
Cue the Blame Game
Both the Ministry of the Interior (MoI), led by Ashur Suleiman Shwayel, and Deputy Prime Minister, Awad al Arassi, claim that it is “too early” to conclude as to who is behind the attack, or what their motivations were. Nevertheless, there is some cause for hope, given reports from the MoI that the explosion had been captured on CCTV, a helpful tool that just might help investigators determine the identities of the assailants.
In the meantime, however, the absence of conclusive information given by authorities has naturally fuelled rumours, with a number of Libyans offering varied, potential clues as to the motivations behind the assault. These accusations have not been confirmed, but some sources believe that the attack could possibly have been conducted by hard-line Salafist extremists who are enraged over the French-led intervention in northern Mali. To that end, there are reports that a YouTube video, authored by the so-called “Mujahedeen Brigade”, had apparently been uploaded several days before the attack on 23 April 2013. The video was allegedly made by “extremists” based out of Derna (an eastern city renowned for its militant tendencies), who are thought to be linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). More interesting, however, is that the video, despite having been uploaded in advance of the attack, shows the individuals already “taking credit” for the French Embassy bombing. This has led to suspicions that the attack was pre-planned, and the video may have been mistakenly uploaded prior to the bombing; or, that the bombing may have been designed to take place on an earlier date. Indeed, reports suggest that the attack may have originally been scheduled to occur n 05 April 2013. These suggestions, however, have not been verified. Nevertheless, in the video, the individuals were recorded as saying the following: “The target was the infidels’ headquarters [the French Embassy], and from now on our jihadist operations are transferred to Tripoli. No Embassy, company or building occupied by the westerners is safe from our harm”.
Another theory as to the perpetrators of the attack revolves around the inner-workings of Libya’s political system. Indeed, for some Libyans, the attack may have been linked to suggestions that deeply unpopular Chief of Staff, Major-General Yousef Mangoush, may soon be ‘booted out’ from his position. This is to say that, the General National Congress (GNC) had originally been scheduled to vote on 23 April 2013, to dismiss Mangoush, not only due to the general lack of support he has with the National Army, but also due to suggestions that he may be “too close” to militant armed groups. In other words, some have speculated that the bombing could have been orchestrated to cement Mangoush’s position as Chief of Staff. More interesting is that Libya’s Diplomatic Security Unit (which is supposed to provide supplemental security to the French guards already stationed at the Embassy) is officially under the control of the Armed Forces Command, which is, in turn, overseen by Chief of Staff Yousef Mangoush. Meanwhile, the Libyan Government, itself, has used the tired Gaddafi blame game, by claiming that “sympathisers” of Muammar Gaddafi were behind the attack. As previously noted by The Inkerman Group, the “Gaddafi card” has repeatedly been used to simplify the reasoning behind complex situations or attacks, as well as to cover up potentially embarrassing security failures.
Again, all reports as to who actually masterminded the attack are, at present, mere speculation. It does appear more likely that the assault was pre-planned, and orchestrated, by Salafist extremists bent on removing any and all foreign interests in Libya. However, the motivations behind the attack (including whether they were orchestrated by militants angered by France’s intervention in Mali, or other nefarious purposes) arguably have no bearing on Tripoli’s security situation. In that, regardless of the reasons behind their attack, incidents of terrorism still pose a threat to Tripoli, albeit minimal compared to that of conflict-ridden Benghazi. In the end, the only thing that can truly be ascertained from French Embassy bombing is that Libya’s security system remains deeply disjointed. This not to say there is no hope for Libyan security. On the contrary, overall when it comes to safeguarding residents, the situation is generally assessed to be improving, albeit slowly. As indicated previously by The Inkerman Group, most of the 100,000-strong contentious SSC has been amalgamated into the MoI, and are now working as members of the national police. However, reports indicate that many of these former “SSC” forces were previously infiltrated by Salafist sympathisers, who may be unwilling to stop extremist attacks. Even worse, some of these very same Salafist sympathisers may be linked to groups which have masterminded attacks in Libya.
It must be noted, that not all Salafists are militants. Furthermore, although Salafists remain in the minority, they are sometimes able to capitalise on the continued lack of coordination between Libya’s various security groups, including its brigades and actual police, which often challenge each other’s authority and ignore security directives implemented by the national government. Adding to the complexity of Libya’s security situation, and in perhaps one of the most miscalculated moves ever orchestrated by the post-Gaddafi government, Libyan authorities amalgamated the SSC and its militias to join as entire units, rather than as individuals. Consequently, militia rivalries have only continued, whilst armed groups that are supposed to ensure the safety of the country, often play both the role of “fire fighter” and “arsonist”, by providing security when it suits their political or religious agenda, and simultaneously ignoring attacks (such as the French Embassy assault) when it does not.
This onslaught of anxiety-inducing news aside, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The overwhelming majority of Libyans remain staunchly opposed to such militancy, and are using their newfound freedom of expression to prove it. Indeed, in light of the attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli, activists are calling for nationwide demonstrations in support of peace, and against militia-orchestrated violence and terrorism, to follow Friday afternoon prayers in major Libyan cities on 26 April 2013.