While the world’s focus in the last two weeks has correctly been on the fates of people passing through Libya, within the state something sinister is beginning. Early last week, two embassies in Tripoli, the nation’s capital, were attacked with bombs and firearms.
Bombing Embassies is nothing new in Libya: six months ago, for example, the diplomatic mission HQs of Egypt and the UAE were bombed in Tripoli (though the attacks took place while both were empty, five security guards were wounded in both attacks).
And militia organisations of all stripes have shown no compunction in targeting buildings of all kinds.
But the two attacks in the space of a few hours on 12-13 April seem to have been spurred by a new motive – and may mark the start of a chilling new chapter in Libya’s turbulent existence.
The bombings of the Egyptian and UAE Embassies, in November 2014, came after two airstrikes on Tripoli which were carried out by UAE aircraft flying from Egyptian airfields (the circumstances leading to these airstrikes are detailed in the book The Toss of a Coin: Voices from a modern crisis).
The embassies were attacked by the Al Fajr (Dawn) movement, the militia which occupies Tripoli and supports one of the two illegitimate governments of Libya.
There is no excuse for terrorist acts, and the people responsible must be brought to justice, should such a thing ever again be possible in Libya.
But it is at least possible to understand the attacks as retaliatory – if one can count the airstrikes as acts of war, one could regard these bombings as a direct response to them.
The most recent attacks, for which Islamic State has claimed responsibility, saw the South Korean Embassy fired on by gunmen in the afternoon of 12 April (killing a security guard and one civilian, and injuring a second guard) and hours later a bomb exploding at the gates of the Moroccan Embassy (no-one was killed or injured in this attack).
At first glance the strikes may look similar to Al Fajr’s. But neither Morocco nor South Korea has attacked – or sponsored an attack – on any part of Libya.
In fact, Morocco’s most recent engagement with the state has been to host leaders of its two powerless governments along with UN diplomats, to attempt to broker a ceasefire – and perhaps a peace agreement – between them.*
*Such an agreement could only be a first step towards peace. Though two of the four militias currently fighting in Libya ‘support’ one or other of the two governments, neither is commanded by them. And the two other militias – including IS – are entirely unconnected to either.
South Korea, meanwhile, has been the most enthusiastic of the states who hope to build trade with the new Libya.
It is to be hoped that neither Morocco nor South Korea will be discouraged from continued engagement with Libya. So far, neither appears to have been.
But this move by IS is not an attempt at ‘revenge’ – it is a deliberate effort to cut Libya off from its few remaining allies, to isolate the nation when it most urgently needs contact with the world around it.
Iraq and Syria, where IS is a powerful military presence, have the eyes of the world fixed upon them. This is not enough to meet – or even significantly reduce – either’s desperate needs. But even such limited observation restricts IS’ capacities in the states.
Far less attention is currently focussed on Libya. And IS’ attacks on the embassies of the country’s few friends are a deliberate attempt to shut out the world, while it prepares to usurp the state.
(Late on Monday 20 April, a bomb was set off outside the Spanish embassy in Tripoli. A Tweet sent from an account believed to belong to IS claimed the group was responsible for the attack. Spain’s sole current link to Libya is that the Morocco peace talks between Libya’s warring factions are being led by Spanish UN diplomat, Bernardino Leon).