On terrorism in Libya

The car bombs that hit Tripoli on August 19 and following clashes with those believed responsible for them have highlighted the recurrent nature of such attacks in the new Libya — just yesterday, for instance, the car of an Egyptian diplomat in Benghazi was also bombed (no one was hurt). The government has blamed Qadhafi loyalists but it's unclear whether this is the case; there are other possible culprits. Having not followed this closely, I gained some clarity yesterday by reading an email sent by Geoff Porter, a North Africa specialist who frequently visits Libya, on the issue. He kindly agreed to let me post it here.

The three car bombs in Tripoli on Sunday 19 August merit a quick Libya update.

Although there were three bombs, the attacks in effect represent a single data point, so it is difficult to extrapolate a trend from them or plot a trajectory for security in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya. However, when placed in the broader context of security risks throughout the country, something in fact can be gleaned from them – namely that security threats in Libya are evolving away from utilitarian violence to terrorism, violence that is ideological and idealistic. This evolution presents new problems for the General National Congress (GNC) in its efforts to get Libya under control.

Libyan officials attributed the attacks to a group of men loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qadhafi. After the attacks, security sources reportedly arrested 32 members of the group, which they said is intent upon sowing discord in the country and is determined to discredit the GNC that was sworn in on 8 August.

The Tripoli bombings were preceded over the last several weeks by a string of assassinations in Benghazi. The assassinations targeted former members of Qadhafi’s intelligence services, all of whom were allegedly on a hit list that includes between 109 and 900 names. It is not known who carried out the attacks. Some speculate that an unspecified Islamist group was responsible. Others think that a local militia with particular grievances against the Qadhafi regime is behind the murders.

Prior to the Benghazi liquidations, there was a series of bombings and attacks on Western targets in Benghazi and Misrata which all violent Islamist linkages. These included an IED attack on the US consulate in Benghazi allegedly in retaliation for the US assassination of Al Qaeda member Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan. Several days later a convoy carrying the UK ambassador to Libya was ambushed. This was followed by an attack on the Tunisian consulate in Benghazi in response to a controversial art exhibit in Tunis. This was then followed by an attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross in Misrata.

There do not appear to be links among the bombings in Tripoli, the assassinations in Benghazi or the attacks on Western targets in Benghazi and Misrata. To say that Libya is plagued by numerous groups operating outside the law – violent Islamists, regime diehards, and vigilantes – with numerous grievances isn’t to say much at all.

But violence in Libya is mutating. In contrast to the violence that Libya underwent during the revolution and immediately afterward with intermittent fighting between militias, what is taking place now is definitively terrorism.

Terrorism presents a different security problem for the GNC. It is motivated by a different calculus from the previous kinds of violence that the NTC was obliged to reckon with. In this case, the demands of the perpetrators of the violence are more holistic, more nihilistic. The intermittent regional violence that occurred in Libya over the last ten months was motivated generally by complaints that could be addressed – territory, the informal economy, release of henchmen from detention. In a certain sense it was utilitarian, with violence for the sake of a tangible and realizable goal. Solutions were negotiated – often within hours, sometimes over the course of days (think: the 4 June Tripoli airport takeover).

The new terrorism that is emerging cannot be negotiated. This isn’t a policy prescription, but simply a reflection that the General National Congress cannot reach a compromise with the perpetrators of the new violence – there is no accommodation with supporters of a rearguard insurgency, with violent Islamists that want to rid Libya of non-Muslim influence, with those who are assassinating former members of the regime. The goal of this kind of violence is not readily achievable. In fact, the violence is both the means and the end. The NTC negotiated with perpetrators of the former kind of violence in part because it did not have a military with which to confront them and in part because it could – solutions could be achieved through dialogue. The GNC is in a difficult position – it still doesn’t have an effective military, but at the same time it can’t sit down with Libya’s new terrorists.