A prime minister.

Photographer: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Disputed Libyan Leader Blames Rival for Hotel Attack

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The terrorist attack at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, Libya, that killed at least nine civilians including an American, was perpetrated by a rival government with the help of Egypt, not by Islamic State militants, according to the head of the disputed government that currently controls the capital. Whether or not he is to be believed, the assault is a stark reminder of how Libya has deteriorated into chaos and civil war since the U.S.-led overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. If the Obama administration believes that it bears some responsibility for Libya, there's been no sign of it.

Omar al-Hassi presides over the Government of National Salvation and is the head of the Libya Dawn coalition, a group that controls the majority of the country. His regime is locked in a battle with an internationally recognized government that fled to the eastern city of Tobruk last August, headed by General Khalifa Haftar.

“Criminal gangs took innocent lives from foreigners and Libyans,” al-Hassi told me in a telephone interview Tuesday, his first remarks to the Western press since the attack. “These foreign visitors were here to help lend their expertise on the rebuilding of Libya and to give us from their experience.”

Hassi said the American victim was an employee of a nongovernmental organization helping to rebuild Libya’s institutions. CNN reported he was a security contractor named David Berry. Hassi said that after the attack, government forces increased security at the hotel, a popular residence for foreigners, and offered security and assistance for any who wanted to leave Tripoli.

Several reports Tuesday said that militants claiming to be affiliated with Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Hassi disputed those claims. He accused the Haftar government of orchestrating it.

“We have seen initial reports on Facebook and social media from some sites that they are saying they are from ISIS and are claiming the attack. Following up with our own intelligence services, we have seen that these social media are not authentic sources,” he said.  “We do believe this action was taken by the Haftar government with the possible aid of Egyptian intelligence, in an operation to try to show that there is instability in the capital, where we have provided stability for the residents, and to give the impression that terrorist organizations are able to operate in Tripoli.”

Hassi's claims linking the Tobruk government to the hotel attack could not be independently verified. The Haftar-led government in Tobruk has repeatedly pledged to attack forces supporting Hassi’s government, which in turn has declared “war” on Haftar’s forces. Since Hassi often works out of the luxury hotel, it's not unreasonable to consider that the attack was an assassination attempt. Hassi offered no specific evidence supporting his allegations, citing only information from his government’s own intelligence services.

“We have received regular threats from the Haftar government calling us criminals, they have bombarded our civilian airports, our seaports, they have been responsible for the displacement of many women and children,” Hassi said.

The U.S. has not withdrawn its recognition of the Haftar government, but maintains an embassy in Tripoli in an area controlled by forces loyal to the GNS. Given that an American was killed today, Hassi is calling on the U.S. to help with the investigation, and to increase its cooperation with his government overall.

The Tobruk government is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who last year attacked Tripoli with air strikes without informing the U.S.  Turkey and Qatar support the Hassi coalition. Fighting over Libya’s oil resources and banking institutions is rampant.  Meanwhile, the Haftar government is also embroiled in a bitter fight with various Islamist groups in Benhgazi, and Islamic State-linked militants largely control the city of Derna.

Earlier this week, before the hotel attack, the U.S. State Department made clear that it was not ready for formal interactions with Hassi or the parliament he presides over in Tripoli.

"The United States Government does not recognize the Government of National Salvation, GNS, in Libya, and is not engaged with any person purporting to act on behalf of Omar al-Hassi or the GNS, contrary to some reports,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

She was responding to earlier reports that Hassi had claimed the U.S. government was helping him. In our interview, Hassi clarified that several American nongovernmental groups had been assisting his government, but not the U.S. government itself.

The State Department has called on all parties to participate in discussions in Geneva led by United Nations official Bernardino Leon. Hassi told me he is for dialogue, but that Leon's process does not have the right people at the table.  He wants the U.S. to begin dealing with his Tripoli government now, rather than wait for the UN discussions to play out.

Hassi compared the Libyan dispute to the U.S. presidential election in 2000, when both George W. Bush and Al Gore initially claimed victory. He pointed to the Libyan Supreme Court’s ruling in November that declared the elected legislature sitting in Tobruk unconstitutional, essentially deeming Haftar's government illegal.

“In the dispute between Bush and Gore, we saw the United States as a government and as a people respect the Supreme Court, respect the rule of law, and retain the independence of the judicial branch,” Hassi said. “Our Supreme Court has done the same thing, giving the salvation government of Libya official legitimacy as the government of Libya and that is the government I preside over today.”

Overall, Hassi is making an argument that his government represents a broader, more inclusive coalition of Libyan groups than the Haftar government, and that he needs U.S. support for developing Libyan civil society after four decades of Qadaffi's rule.

Admittedly, the civil war in Libya is brutal and no party has clean hands. Hassi’s coalition includes some Islamist militias that may not support the vision he proclaims of democracy and civil society. There’s no assurance that if his coalition wins, it will be able to bring the stability he promises.

One thing is certain: In the absence of greater U.S. engagement, the war is likely to drag on, influence on the ground will be ceded to outside parties, and the threat posed by the worst groups, those not aligned with either government, will continue to increase.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net