ISIS Attack on Tripoli Hotel Opens New Front Against West

Tripoli and ISIS
A vehicle belonging to security forces is pictured near Corinthia hotel (rear) in Tripoli January 27, 2015 Ismail Zitouny/ REUTERS

A militant group affiliated to the Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for today’s attack on a luxury hotel in the Libyan capital which left nine people - including five foreign nationals - dead, according to analysts.

The attack saw a car bomb detonate outside the building and at least two gunmen storm the five-star Corinthia hotel, where government officials and foreign delegations regularly stay.

Tripoli’s prime minister and an American delegation were evacuated during the assault in which the attackers reached the 24th floor of the hotel, killing three security guards, five foreign nationals and a hostage.

Political risk company, Risk Advisory Group, confirmed that a militant group affiliated to the Islamic State, IS Tripoli, had circulated photos of the attack at the hotel with the title reading: “Tripoli Province: Pictures of the Raid of Sheikh Abu Anas Al-Libi”.

The image caption reads: “Pictures from the site of the explosion of the car bomb” and say, “The lions of the caliphate have invaded” the hotel. The accompanying text on the images also claims that clashes were still ongoing inside the building, although officials have confirmed that the two gunmen blew themselves up after the attack.

Al-Libi, an al-Qaeda suspect who had been on the FBI’s most-wanted list, recently died in U.S. custody just days before was set to stand trial for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 224 people.

He was captured in Tripoli by U.S. special forces in October 2013, and taken into custody for his alleged involvement in the attacks.

At the time of Al-Libi’s death, a minister in Libya’s National Salvation government - which is not recognised by the international community - said that U.S. authorities “must shed light on details of his death” as there “is speculation about how he died in prison”.

While local security official Mahmoud Hamza did not divulge the nationality of the foreign nationals killed in today’s attack,  Kayla Branson, the lead North African analyst at the Risk Advisory Group, confirmed that the assault marked the first time that this ISIS branch had targeted western interests in Libya but pointed out that different ISIS factions have had an increasing presence in the country over the last six months or so.

Tripoli Libya The image that is being circulated by the IS-affiliated militant group on jihadist forums, claiming responsibility for the attack. IS Tripoli

As well as the formation of IS Tripoli in the country’s west, two other ISIS-affiliated branches have emerged in the country - Barqa in the east and Fezzan in the south.

“It would certainly be the first targeting of an area in which Westerners are frequently present and often take up residence, in their current form as IS Tripoli,” she said.

“They [IS Tripoli] have just established themselves in the latter half of 2014. It [the attack] is definitely one of the most significant incidents we have seen in the capital.”

It is Branson’s view that the chaotic situation in the country will allow the three ISIS branches to grow, as it will give the jihadists “more time to organise, to coordinate and to establish networks”.

Other militias have carried out small-scale attacks against the hotel in previous years but Branson believes that unrest in Libya, which has seen the country descend into civil war between rival factions following the death of ex-president Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, has allowed the IS Tripoli to carry out its first attack against the perceived western target.

“Now, there is significantly less control than there was before, which would enable them to carry out such an attack,” Branson asserted.

Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northwestern University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, agrees that the “anarchical nature” of the country, following the western coalition to oust Gaddafi, has allowed ISIS to thrive.

“It’s no surprise that the Islamic State is infesting Libya, given its anarchical nature. There’s no governing authority,” he said.

“This creates opportunities for terrorists to seize control. Terrorists gravitate to power vacuums,” he added. “I think everybody would agree that the removal of Gaddafi made Libya more chaotic, not less, more violent.”

Last November, the terror group’s eastern branch, known as IS Barqa, took control of the coastal town of Derna while the US Africa Command has claimed that the group have created a number of training camps in the country’s eastern regions.

Entire battalions of the terror group’s Libyan fighters have also left fighting in Syria and Iraq to return to the country, according to Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a leading global risk analytics company.

“I think there are at least 300 Libyan nationals who had been fighting in Iraq for the Islamic State who, in late 2014, had returned back to Libya,” said Soltvedt. “However, I would not expect them [total ISIS fighters] to be more than a 1,000 in Libya.”

The country is in the midst of what is essentially civil war between two rival factions in its western and eastern regions, Solvedt says. One faction is linked to the internationally-recognised government in the east, which is based in the city of Tobruk, and the other is allied to the Islamist-backed Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) who took control of Tripoli last summer.