Trouble in Tripoli

A few days ago, there was an attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, Libya. Gunmen entered the hotel and opened fire, and a car bomb was set off outside. Nine people were killed, including five foreigners. Some sources claim that the attack was in retaliation for the abduction of Anu Anas Al Liby in October 2013. This attack — though smaller in scale than many Tripoli has seen — is particularly crippling. Let me explain why.

During the autumn of 2013, I spent three and half months living in the Corinthia. I was based there, running a trial of our English program, ELT Tiger, with the Libyan military under the sponsorship of the UK Ministry of Defence. Though the security situation was not as bad as it has subsequently become, things were far from rosy. In early October, US special forces abducted suspected Benghazi bomber, Anu Anas Al Liby, from Libyan soil. Within hours, the abduction was all over the news. The Libyan government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the operation, and many were up in arms (literally) about the apparent breach of sovereignty. A week later, then Prime Minister Zeidan was abducted at gunpoint in the middle of the night from the Corinthia hotel, a few floors above where I was staying.

The Corinthia was Zeidan’s home and place of work for much of what he did. It was safer than other places in Tripoli, and that was true not only for the Prime Minister, but many other officials and foreign leaders. Ask anyone who has spent any time in Tripoli and they will tell you, a significant amount of government work, business, and development happens not only in the Corinthia hotel, but because of it. It has been for many the most convenient meeting place, a safe haven equipped with meeting facilities, decent Internet and communications, and the open atmosphere conducive to discussion and cooperation.

Despite the events during the autumn of 2013, there has not been serious violence at the Corinthia itself like this most recent attack. Any remaining foreign interest in Libya will be seriously shaken by these events. This attack means it will likely be a long time before any meaningful projects with any foreign support can be completed. After 42 years under Gaddafi, the Libyans lack several different skill sets, including leadership. They are keenly aware of this, and eager for foreign support and training. The attack on the Corinthia, though perhaps smaller in scale than others, is incredibly significant in this regard because of how it will cripple foreign support. It saddens me greatly, but this is a massive step backward for Libya.

When Zeidan was taken from the Corinthia in October 2013, it was the day before Eid al Adha. I was expecting my passport back that day with a visa extension. Because of the kidnapping, government agencies shut down that day, and remained closed for the next 10 days of Eid. I was stuck in the Corinthia without a passport and Al Qaeda was publicly calling for Americans in Tripoli to be kidnapped in retaliation for the abduction of Anu Anas Al Liby. Lovely.

It was a tense time, but it passed without incident, and the staff at the Corinthia were incredibly supportive. I was one of few remaining guests in the hotel during Eid, so I got to know several members of the staff well. Guests returned, and Tripoli continued to teeter on the brink of promise.

Some weeks later, violence erupted and I again found myself one of few guests remaining in the hotel. In November, the militias began battling in Tripoli itself. A skirmish led to peaceful protests, which turned bloody when a militia opened fire on the civilians with anti-aircraft guns. A young girl was decapitated by a 100 calibre round, and everyone went home to get their guns. The fighting raged throughout the rest of the day and all night. I watched the convoys of pickup trucks drive by below, anti-aircraft guns mounted on their beds. From my window, I could see shells exploding over the water. Once again, the morning dawned clear, and the Corinthia remained safe. The militias were at that time expelled from Tripoli in what was a massive popular victory. It is so sad to see that has reverted.

Nine people were killed the other day. I have not been able to get names yet, but I would not be surprised if some of the staff I knew are counted among the dead. As a single incident, this event is certainly sad enough; considering the wider implications of an attack of this nature at the Corinthia Hotel — what was a safe haven for foreigners and locals alike to come together and work on building a new and better Libya — this is very sad, indeed.

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