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France seeks answers after Libya embassy attack

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Islamist groups retaliating to France’s intervention in Mali and Libyan militias loyal to the Gaddafi regime are among those who could be responsible for Tuesday’s bombing of the French embassy in Tripoli, analysts say.


In the wake of Tuesday’s attack on the French embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it remains unclear who carried out the bombing and why. While it is still too early to draw any conclusions, analysts have listed Libyan militias as well as local and foreign Islamists among the possible suspects.

French President François Hollande has vowed to work with Libyan authorities to do everything within their power to find those responsible and bring them to justice.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: "A cowardly and hateful attack"

“France expects the Libyan authorities to ensure that all possible light is shed on this unacceptable act,” Hollande said on Tuesday.

As France searches for answers, Karim Emile Bitar, research director at the country’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), told FRANCE 24 that he believes the attack was an act of retaliation against French foreign policy.

According to Bitar, the bombing was most likely carried out by militia still loyal to Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi seeking to "punish France" for its 2011 intervention in the country, or by Islamist forces angered by Hollande’s decision to launch a military operation in Mali to combat extremists in the north.

Government and militias battling for control

Eighteen months after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya’s central government is struggling for full control over the country, much of which is still run by militia groups.

"The state is still far from being the sole military force in the region,” explained Bitar.

“There are hundreds of local militias who use force to intimidate foreigners, citizens and government officials alike. These groups want to impose their ideology as well as control the economy and security.”

“These militiamen are sometimes made up of 16-year-olds with Kalashnikovs, but all Libyan politicians are subject to pressure from them,” he added.

The fact that the attack took place in the centre of the capital was "symbolic," Bitar said, because it "shows that the new Libyan government can still be struck at its heart".

Mathieu Pellerin, director at the Centre of Strategic Intelligence on the African Continent (CISCA), also pointed out the weakness of the Libyan government and the lack of security in the country.

"There is a real fragmentation of the state, with pockets of power scattered across the territory,” Pellerin said. “Since the fall of Gaddafi, the country works very much like a federal system. [Major] cities like Misrata and Benghazi continue to chip away at the powers of the central government.”

“Liberals and reformers from the Gaddafi era are being gradually sidelined,” he continued. “In Tripoli, Abdelhakim Belhadj, the current head of domestic security, was a former militia leader who was close to the [Islamist] Muslim Brotherhood and maintains a murky relationship with radical groups. All this means that there is no guarantee of security in Libya, except for those with strong ties to the militia groups.”

The threat of Islamist groups

Pellerin went on to say, however, that the embassy attack may also be the work of Islamist groups retaliating against France’s military intervention in neighbouring Mali.

Hollande: "French interests are bound to be threatened by terrorism"

Just days before the French embassy was bombed, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a new threat against France over its actions in the troubled West African nation.

"Repelling French aggression is an obligation for every Muslim, not just al Qaeda," a spokesman for the terrorist network said in a tweet on Friday. Other jihadist groups, including the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have also previously threatened French interests.

“We can only speculate on the connection between last Friday’s threats from AQIM and the attack in Tripoli,” said Pellerin. “For several months, a number of jihadists have come to Libya from Mali. If they are not behind the attack, it may well be the act of jihadists from Algeria, or local jihadists who maintain close relations with AQIM. There is, in any case, every reason to believe that this attack is linked to the French intervention in Mali.”

However, Bitar said that although there are supporters of al Qaeda in Libya there is “nothing to indicate for the moment that they have organised and are behind this attack.” But he added that, “it could be independent Islamist groups”.

No anti-French sentiment

Part of the confusion over Tuesday’s attack arises from the fact that France enjoys a relatively positive image in Libya. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was the driving force behind a NATO operation against Gaddafi’s forces two years ago, which was largely welcomed by the Libyan people.

“France has always been well perceived by the public,” Bitar said. “There is a French parliamentary commission in the country, which has been well received. The business community and policymakers have rolled out the red carpet.”

FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Tripoli, Marine Casalis, agreed. “There is no anti-French sentiment in Tripoli,” she stated.

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