At approximately 7am on 27 January, at least two masked gunmen detonated a car bomb outside Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia hotel, which is often frequented by foreigners during visits to Libya’s capital. Following the blast, the attackers entered the building, killing five of the hotel’s security guards in the ensuing gun battle. As the assault continued through the morning, at least five foreigners (three Asians, a US and a French citizen) were killed. The incident ended in the early afternoon when the attackers apparently blew themselves up on the hotel’s top floor. In a brief statement on Twitter, the Tripoli branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group claimed responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, as a further two days of peace talks between many of Libya’s warring factions concluded in Geneva the same day, all parties emphasised that they rejected terrorism and had made positive steps toward forming a government of national unity.

 

Although details are still emerging, the attack on the Corinthia is significant in that it is the first major assault on foreigners by an ISIL-affiliated group in Libya. Indeed, the death toll could have been far higher but for the fact that the Corinthia has been comparatively deserted since the major deterioration in Tripoli’s security situation last summer. Coming as it did just as some Western firms were beginning to reinsert personnel into Libya, the assault at the Corinthia has again highlighted the enduring threat to foreigners in Libya, even in better-protected areas. Indeed, the attack provides more evidence that Libya’s security situation is worsening as the threat from Islamist extremism rises.

However, the immediate effect of the assault on the Corinthia should be balanced against developments at the political level that give rise to cautious optimism about Libya’s longer-term future. The united condemnation of the attacks by all the delegates attending the Geneva talks was a new, and rare, show of unity, and despite the absence from the talks of more hard line Islamist elements – including those from the rump General National Congress, who claimed the attack on the Corinthia was the work of ‘Gaddafi-ists’ – the negotiations appear to be proceeding well. Crucially, most of the Misratans, so often the bellwether of events in Libya, are taking part, while the range of delegates attending from across the tribal and regional spectrums is another welcome development. Even more encouragingly, as the talks concluded, the United Nations’ Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) which has overseen the dialogue process, issued a statement that participants had ‘discussed the issue of the formation of a consensual national unity government to ensure the unity of the country and State institutions. This includes the government’s mandate, program, the decision-making process as well as the criteria for selecting its members.’ Local reports have quoted unnamed Libyan sources stating that this unity government could be decided upon in as little as two weeks. While this is likely to be optimistic, clearly progress is being made.

Such progress must be tempered with realism. The ceasefire between broadly secularist Operation Dignity forces and the broadly Islamist Operation Dawn alliance declared 16 January has not held, with heavy fighting reported in the west; near the Es Sider oil terminal; and in Benghazi. And with the oil sector now firmly in the crosshairs, on 26 January the Anwaar Afriqya oil tanker was approaching Misrata port when Dignity jets – wary that its cargo would find its way to Dawn units – forced it to divert to Tobruk. The incident clearly indicates the continuing lack of trust between the adversaries at the operational and tactical levels, and the gap between the rhetoric of Geneva and the reality of Libya’s complex and dynamic frontlines.

The immediate affect of the Corinthia attack is likely to hinder Western commercial activity in Tripoli and Libya in the short term. Unfortunately, this comes just as Aegis sources reported an uptick in the expatriate presence in the capital. Those that do remain will have to carefully consider their security posture in light of the emerging extremist threat. Meanwhile, there is some way to go in hammering out the details of any potential unity government, and with many hardliners still not involved and happy to keep fighting, a total and binding ceasefire remains a distant prospect. Nonetheless, the fact that delegates have met in Geneva again, and have agreed to the next phase in the dialogue process, is a significant step forward. There is also clear momentum with the process now, thus making it harder to obstruct. Indeed, while an abortive spectacular attack in a hotel has finally put Libya back in the headlines of the Western media, commercially, it is the continued targeting of oil and gas assets that is much more worrying.