Foreigners living in Libya continue to be targeted, embarrassing the Libyan government and inducing warnings from foreign governments fearing kidnapping, blackmail or killing of their citizens.

The abduction of five Egyptian diplomats in Libya on 25-26 January has by no means been the first of its kind and is unlikely to be the last.

Foreigners living in Libya continue to be targeted, embarrassing the Libyan government and inducing warnings from foreign governments fearing kidnapping, blackmail or killing of their citizens.

The abduction of five Egyptian diplomats in Libya on 25-26 January has by no means been the first of its kind and is unlikely to be the last.

A group of armed militia who refused to identify themselves abducted the Egyptian diplomats in retaliation for the arrest of Shaban Hadiya – aka Abu Ubaida Zawi – in Alexandria. Hadiya is the commander of the operations room of Libyan rebels, which has been recently put under the command of the general staff. The kidnappers, who first appeared on Alarabiya Channel Saturday evening claimed they were “Libyan rebels” and “Hadiya’s companions and compatriots.”

They said the abduction was meant to put pressure on the Egyptian government to release Hadiya, threatening that they would not release the Egyptian diplomats unless Egypt released Hadiya. Hadiya was in Alexandria with his family seeking medical treatment when the Egyptian police arrested him on charges of planning terrorist attacks and being affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Subsequently, all diplomatic staff in the Egyptian embassy in Libya, including the ambassador, were evacuated for fear of any potential risk to their lives.

Killed on the beach

Not long before this incident, news of a Briton murdered in Libya along with his girlfriend from New Zealand spread through Facebook pages with a picture of blood traces at the crime scene. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued a statement confirming that it was coordinating with the Libyan authorities to verify facts and gather more information.

Pictures show that the two victims were sitting on the beach in casual clothes and were shot in the head from a short range.

An FCO statement confirmed the death of the British national. “Our Chargé d’Affaires has raised the shooting with the Libyan authorities and we are liaising closely with them on follow-up,” the statement said. “We call upon the Libyan Government to carry out a thorough investigation into this tragic incident and to continue to do all it can to bring to justice the perpetrators of this appalling crime.”

Citing the FCO, British media said the victim, named Mark De Salis, worked in the energy sector in Libya for six years and that his New Zealander friend was visiting him. They were shot dead in front of the Mellitah oil complex near Zuwara, about 100 kilometers from Tripoli.

Repeat incidents

Almost a month earlier, an American teacher was shot dead in Benghazi. In addition, an Indian university professor was killed in Ajdabiya, 160 kilometers west of Benghazi, and an Iraqi academic was abducted in Derna, 350 kilometers east of Benghazi.

These are but a few examples of the many incidents in which Italian, Korean, Russian and Iranian nationals were targeted, let alone the many times in which Tunisian nationals were abducted to be exchanged with Libyans arrested in Tunisia.

The Libyan government has not declared the results of investigations in any of these crimes. More often than not, it only issues condemnations and apologies through Libyan ambassadors. Every time, Libyan Justice Minister Salah Almerghani stresses that such acts are crimes punishable by law.

 Travel warnings

On account of this insecurity, the FCO advised against all but essential travel to Libya in its January 3 update of the ‘foreign travel advice’ published on its website and updated every three months.

The warning included the coastal areas from the Tunisian borders to Misrata, including Tripoli and the towns of Jebel Nafusa in addition to the coastal areas from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian border, with the exception of Benghazi and Derna. The FCO advised against all travel to all other parts of Libya, including Benghazi and Derna.

“There is a high threat of terrorism including kidnapping. This threat is increased due to retaliatory attacks following the French intervention in Mali,” read the FCO statement. “British nationals in Tripoli should remain vigilant.”

“The warning was not binding for British citizens as the British government has not issued a law penalizing traveling to Libya,” said Yusuf Suwei, the Media Officer at the British embassy in Tripoli. “The embassy offers advice and consultation and consular services to British nationals, but they are free to make their professional and travel decisions.”

US Embassy incident

European and American governments started warning against travel to Libya after the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, in which four Americans, including American ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed and many others injured. Most Western diplomatic missions withdrew from Benghazi following the incident.

In January 2013, the FCO renewed its warning against travelling to Libya and advised all British nationals to “immediately leave Benghazi, as there is a clear threat against Western nationals.”

The Netherlands, Germany and France followed suit warning against all travel to Libya including transit, due to the uncertain security situation and the potential of violence.

The US Department of State went even further, listing Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Derna as a terrorist organization after accusing the group of participating in the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. It further warned against all but essential travel to Tripoli and against all travel to all other Libyan areas.

The US Embassy in Tripoli regularly renews its warning against traveling to Libya. 

Mysterious motives

“The motive for the killings of the British man and his female companion could be criminal as well as political,” says the Independent. “Officials stated that they had not been able to ascertain fully what the couple were carrying and were thus unable to rule out robbery as a reason for the attack.”

The Guardian says the incident underscores the “hazardous security situation in Libya,” indicating that it is the first time a British citizen has been killed since the ouster of Gaddafi, which suggests a terrorist attack.

“The killing of foreigners in Libya has three motives: purely criminal motives, politically motivated and induced by foreign intelligence to cause chaos in the country, or terrorism carried out by Jihadist groups taking revenge of the godless West,” says Ezzeddin Abdulkarim, a writer and media professional.

Human Rights Watch says: “Myriad armed groups and criminals with various agendas are benefiting from a weak and dysfunctional law enforcement system where they can kill even police and judges with impunity. Unless the government takes urgent steps to actually turn its own pledges into action and make building its police and criminal investigation units a priority, there is a real risk of a further surge in violence.”

Despite the risk

Notwithstanding all these warnings, a large number of non-diplomatic Western nationals have not left the country. They continue to work even in Benghazi and Derna where the risk is greatest.

A Western diplomat, who preferred anonymity, said there were many reasons why Westerners would seek jobs in Libya. “Theoretically, Libya is an oil-rich country and a large consumer market.  Many job opportunities are available in infrastructure, environment and many other sectors,” he said.

According to the seventh annual Human Rights Risk Atlas produced by global analytics company, Maplecroft, the number of countries classified as ‘extreme risk’ between 2008 and 2014 has increased from 20 to 34. Libya ranked 19th following Syria (1st), Sudan (2nd), Somalia (5th), Iraq (7th), Yemen (9th) and Egypt (16th).