27 Jan 2015

Libyans hope for law and order as country is torn apart

It tells you something about Tripoli today that few people took much notice when they heard shooting from the Corinthia Hotel this morning.

Security forces surround Corinthia hotel after a car bomb in Tripoli

“To be honest, the sound of shooting is so normal that I ignored it,” said a woman who works in a tower block opposite.

“There had been warnings and rumours of an attack around here but there was no extra security, just the same single police car that’s been there for the last three years.”

Read more: Zawiyah out of bounds on the road to Gaddafi’s Tripoli

A few minutes later a massive explosion made all the blocks in the neighbourhood shake.

According to a local journalist, four or five gunmen stormed the lobby of the Corinthia, Tripoli’s most luxurious hotel, shooting foreigners and locals alike. Several were killed. A car exploded in the car park as guests were evacuated to the back.

The Corinthia has had a turbulent recent history. In amongst the praise for the generous breakfast buffet, one TripAdvisor review from 2013 notes: “Militia groups can and do enter when they wish to and should they want to remove an individual from the hotel it is difficult to imagine the hotel security being able to stop them.”

Indeed, in October that year hotel security failed to prevent militiamen from kidnapping the then prime minister, Ali Zeidan, from the room he was occupying – he’d taken up residence there as it was safer than anywhere else in the city.

Back in 2011, the day after Gaddafi and his forces fled the capital, the Channel 4 News team was shot at from a neighbouring tower block as we edited our story in a room on the 23rd floor. Two bullets (I still have the remains of one) came through the open window and hit the ceiling as we flung ourselves onto the floor.

In the years since Gaddafi’s removal, the Corinthia has nonetheless been regarded as the safest place for oilmen, bankers and other foreigners trying to do business in Libya. Now, though, there is little legitimate business to be done in Tripoli, and the Corinthia has only a few guests.

The Libyan capital is in the hands of Operation Dawn, a coalition of militiamen and parliamentarians who were voted out of office but refused to step down. Their leader, Omar al-Hassi, was reportedly in the hotel when the gunmen attacked, but he escaped and it’s not clear that he was a target. A rival parliament that was voted in last year, is based in the eastern city of Tobruk, backed by a small army and calling itself Operation Dignity. Libya is being torn apart.

The men who attacked the Corinthia today allegedly threw hand grenades from the windows and shouted “Allah Akbar”. The website of a jihadi group calling itself Islamic State in Tripoli Province said it had carried out the attack, calling the hotel “a headquarters that includes diplomatic missions and crusader security companies”. In fact, most countries have withdrawn their diplomats and security guards from Tripoli as it’s too dangerous and they don’t want to bestow legitimacy on those who have seized power in the capital.

Why did the attackers do it? They said they were avenging the death of Abu Anas al-Libi, a jihadi allegedly involved in the 1998 attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania – last year the Americans lifted him from the streets of Tripoli and spirited him to the US where he died, allegedly of liver failure.

But more broadly, they did it because they can, because Libya has become a lawless place. Two weeks ago they kidnapped as many as 20 Egyptian Christians who were working in the town of Sirte, east of the capital. It’s hard to know if they’re connected with Islamic State in Syria or have just adopted the name.

In the absence of a government that can exert its authority across the country, Libya has fragmented. Islamic State reportedly has three branches – one in the east, one in the west and one in the south, mirroring Libya’s old regional fault lines. Today’s attack on the Corinthia is a symbol of the anarchy that has come to characterise the country. Around Tripoli, people shrug and carry on with their lives as best they can, despite the kidnaps, gunfire and explosions, hoping that one day someone will restore law and order.

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