Chaos in North African nation creates ‘natural environment’ for jihadist groups, Atlantic Council’s Mezran says

Fighters loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to expand their presence in the North African nation.

On Tuesday, an affiliate of ISIS in Libya claimed responsibility for an attack on a luxury hotel in the capital Tripoli in which five people were killed.

“In the vacuum that has been created in Libya since the beginning of last year we have a natural environment for jihadi organizations, whether they are affiliated to ISIS or not, to proliferate and prosper,” said Karim Mezran, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Mezran, however, said it is still not confirmed that ISIS was really behind the attack in Tripoli on Tuesday.

“It is unclear whether the target was the prime minister or the eight Americans who were reportedly at the hotel,” he added.

A senior State Department official confirmed a US citizen was among the dead.

Libya has two prime ministers, two governments, and two parliaments, backed by powerful militias. The Tripoli-based prime minister, Omar al-Hassi, was at the Corinthia Hotel at the time of the attack.

US officials have previously expressed concern about the emergence of ISIS in Libya.

Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), told reporters in December that ISIS had started to put down roots in Libya.  

“[ISIS] has begun its efforts over in the east out there to introduce some people over there,” Rodriguez said.

“But we’ll have to just continue to monitor and watch that carefully in the future to see what happens or whether it grows on unabated,” he added.

Late last year, ISIS reportedly took control of Derna, a northeastern coastal town in Libya. The group has been bolstered by the return of jihadists from the war in Syria.

The ISIS affiliate dubbed the attack on the Corinthia Hotel the “Battle of Abu Anas al-Libi,” according to SITE, an intelligence-monitoring group.

US Special Forces captured al-Libi, an alleged al Qaeda operative accused in the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, from in front of his home in Tripoli in October of 2013. Al-Libi died in a US hospital in January.

Islamic militants had vowed to avenge al-Libi’s capture.

Terrorist groups, including ISIS, have taken advantage of the chaos in Libya.

Libya’s internationally recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, was forced to move his government from Tripoli to the eastern port city of Tobruk after Libya Dawn, an armed group, seized the capital last summer. While the House of Representatives is now based in Tobruk, a rival General National Congress was set up in Tripoli.

Both sides have been fighting over territory, oil revenue, and the control of oil terminals.

United Nations-led efforts in Geneva to reconcile the two groups have, so far, failed to produce results. This effort has been handicapped by the fact that representatives from only one side — the government in Tobruk — have turned up for the talks.

“The problem is the real stakeholders — the guys who hold the guns — are not present in Geneva and that can spoil the results,” said Mezran.

Mezran cited as an example the failure of a ceasefire declared in Geneva.

“This tells us that the people in Geneva don’t have total control over the people on the ground,” he said.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Karim Mezran