A suicide bomber detonated a truck loaded with explosives at an army base 30 miles from the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Sunday morning, killing six soldiers and prompting fears that al Qaeda is now set to exploit the political and militia-related turmoil plaguing Libya.
The attacker detonated the blast after pulling up to a security checkpoint, leaving 15 wounded. It’s the first suicide attack to cause mass causalities in Libya since Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster two years ago. The only other suicide attack since Gaddafi’s ouster was on November 18 in a failed targeting of the military governor of Benghazi Abdullah Saiti.
“A Toyota truck approached the checkpoint and parked there,” Libyan army officer Aymen al-Abdlay told Reuters about Sunday’s attack. “There was a young man driving, but when the army troops went to check it out, the vehicle exploded.”
The explosion adds to worries that Libya is on the brink of breakdown and losing the struggle to establish order amidst high-level kidnappings, assassinations and militia clashes.
Last month, the heaviest fighting since Gaddafi’s ouster engulfed Tripoli as rival militias battled each other, throwing the capital into chaos. Militiamen subsequently gunned down more than 30 protesters during demonstrations against them in the capital. Benghazi and other eastern Libyan towns have seen in recent months a growing campaign of targeted assassinations mostly of current and former security officials.
And since July, the country’s beleaguered Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been struggling to lift a blockade on Libya’s vital eastern oil terminals imposed by wayward militias wanting semi-autonomy for eastern Libya.
Rami El Obeidi, the former intelligence chief of the rebels during the uprising against Gaddafi and a commander of some of the soldiers who were killed in Sunday’s explosion, told The Daily Beast that his preliminary information showed the bomber was actually from Mali, not Libya. The bomber is likely one of the hundreds of jihadists in Mali who fled north when the French intervened a year ago to quash a radical Muslim insurgency in the sub-Saharan African state, El Obeidi said.
The Libyan army unit targeted was one of the few that had gone head-to-head with hardline Islamist militias and had tried to counter Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Libya. “It had caused serious disruption to jihadist logistics supply routes between Derna and Benghazi,” says El Obeidi.
Derna, located 156 miles east of Benghazi, is an Islamist hotbed and home to jihadists from across the Middle East, including some from neighboring Egypt. Western intelligence officials have identified several senior al Qaeda operatives in the town, including Abdul Basit Azuz, who they say have been overseeing a training camp near Derna for more than a year.
Previous attacks in Libya, including the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, have been seen by some intelligence officials as the handiwork of homegrown hardline Islamists from militias and groups that are not officially affiliated with al Qaeda—but have links and are sympathetic to the terror organization’s ideology.
But since France’s crushing of al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, the jihadist presence in Libya has grown, prompting El Obeidi among others to claim that Libya has become al Qaeda’s headquarters in North Africa.
The first worrying sign of al Qaeda’s readiness to launch attacks in Libya came on April 23 when a car bomb was detonated outside the French embassy in Tripoli, wounding two gendarmes. A bombing effort on the British Council, a government-funded educational body protected by the British foreign office, was targeted on the same day but the bomber botched the attack. The bomber, dubbed the “Keystone Bomber” by Western security officials, reportedly panicked after he parked his car, heavily laden with explosives, too close to a high concrete bollard and was unable to open his door to make his escape.
Despite the bungled operation outside the British Council, foreign and Libyan security officials told The Daily Beast that the planning of the April 23 attacks showed a high standard—and they suspected it was an AQIM operation. At the embassy, the bombers parked the car as close as possible to the perimeter wall, so when the blast hit, concrete shards were hurled in all directions. According to Libyan and foreign security sources, the bomb used against the French Embassy was well constructed technically and a substantial amount of explosive was used, capable of generating an explosion that scattered debris three blocks away.
The al Qaeda influx has prompted a reconfiguration of radical and violent Islamist groups in Libya with more of them coming under the direct sway of AQIM. One Libyan intelligence source has likened it to a “swarm of bees” accepting a new queen bee.
Since the jihadist influx from Mali started, Libyan intelligence officials have questioned whether al Qaeda would decide to play a bigger, leading role in Libya—or just use the country as a safe haven for training and recruitment and the trafficking of weapons and arms for use elsewhere in the region. Salafist sources in eastern Libya told The Daily Beast that al Qaeda had been requested by hardline Libyan Islamist groups to refrain from action inside Libya and had been warned to avoid the spilling of Libyan blood.
This may explain why the French embassy bombing and the bungled attack on the British Council the same day in Tripoli—attacks seen as revenge for the Western intervention in Mali—were early in the morning so casualties would be kept to a minimum and wouldn’t offend powerful Libyan Islamists.
This latest bombing suggests that any agreement made between local Islamists and al Qaeda to avoid bloodshed in Libya may no longer be in effec