Explosion at French Embassy in Libya highlights security challenges

The explosion wounded two French guards in what appeared to be the first major terrorist attack on a diplomatic compound in Tripoli since the ouster of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

Abdul Majeed Forjani/AP
Security officers and officials inspect the site of a car bomb that targeted the French embassy wounding two French guards and causing extensive material damage in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday. An explosives-laden car was detonated just outside the embassy building in Tripoli's upscale al-Andalus neighborhood, officials said.

A bomb that exploded outside the French Embassy in Tripoli marks the first time that a diplomatic mission in the Libyan capital has been targeted by terrorists since the take down of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

French President Francois Hollande condemned the act, saying it was an attack not just against France but "all countries in the international community engaged fighting terrorism."

It is unclear what the motive was and whether there is a link to France’s intervention in Mali or its role in the ouster of the late Mr. Qaddafi.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion that wounded two security guards and caused massive damage but no deaths.

The US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi in a September 2012 attack, but this is described as the first terrorist attack in the capital city against the foreign diplomatic corps. It comes at a time when a new vulnerability to the threat of terrorism, whether domestic or international, has emerged in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

“This is the first time that the capital suffers such an attack. It’s symbolically important because it’s where institutions are … it [is a message that] these groups can strike pretty much anywhere,” says Karim Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. 

According to reports, the blast, an apparent car explosion, blew off the front wall of the embassy and the reception area, as well as the windows in nearby homes in the residential area where the French Embassy of Libya is located. 

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called it an “odious act” and promised a thorough investigation. "In conjunction with the Libyan authorities, our government departments will make every effort to ensure that all light be shed on the circumstances of this heinous act and its perpetrators quickly identified," France’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Aziz condemned the bombing: "We strongly condemn this act, which we regard as a terrorist act against a brother nation that supported Libya during the revolution,” he said. 

Radical jihadists had promised to retaliate against French interests, after the country’s intervention in Mali this year to drive back Islamist militants there.

Just this week France’s Parliament voted to extend France’s involvement, which has been widely supported by the French public. France also, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, took the lead in NATO air raids against Qaddafi forces, another possible, but less likely, motive, says Mr. Bitar.

Libya has been mired in violence since then, underscored by the attack this morning. The central authorities have been unable to assert control over dozens of local militias wielding power with various ideologies. 

“What it does certainly suggest for France and other European states supporting the transition in Libya is that the number one question is security,” says Susi Dennison, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “This has to be a key priority if they want to see its transition emerge successfully.” 

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