A group calling itself Islamic State-Tripoli Province claimed responsibility over Twitter for the attack Tuesday morning on Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel, a seaside complex popular with foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists.
The apparent international nature of its authors and target makes Tuesday’s attack stand out from the usual violence afflicting the North African nation, which has seen almost continuous factional fighting since longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed in a popular uprising in 2011.
A posting Tuesday on a Twitter account thought to be connected to the central Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq described two of the attackers as their own. That claim is difficult to authenticate, but if further evidence surfaces that the self-proclaimed caliphate played a role, the attack could point to a growing footprint for a group whose rapid advance has unsettled much of the Middle East and drawn U.S. forces back into Iraq.
Among those killed Tuesday was an American security contractor, David Berry, employed by the Virginia-based security firm Team Crucible LLC. The 34-year-old former marine sergeant, a native of Arizona, had been in Libya since last year and was fluent in Arabic, his father, James Berry, said.
“My son is a warrior, he always wanted to do what he’s doing right now, or what he did up to this day,” Mr. Berry said. “He was a man who had more respect and honor for this country than you would believe.”
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that a Frenchman also died in the attack.
Essam al-Naas, the security spokesman for the government in Tripoli, described two of the foreigners killed as Asian women who he believed worked for the Tripoli-based airline Buraq Air.
Mr. al-Naas said two of the assailants died, at least one of them by detonating explosives in a suicide vest.
Tuesday’s attack underscored growing U.S. concern about Libya’s disintegration and alarm over Islamic State’s efforts to expand its sway there and potentially elsewhere in North Africa.
“What we’re worried about is the movement of the facilitators and leaders, and then follow that by the movement of arms, ammunition, explosives,” Army Gen. David Rodriguez, head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said in Washington.
Libya’s main conflict pits Libya Dawn, an Islamist group that controls the capital, Tripoli, against a secular-oriented regime based in the eastern city of Tobruk. It has reduced the country’s lucrative oil exports to a trickle and created tens of thousands of refugees. The conflict has also served as an incubator for more virulent groups.
“It’s little wonder that Islamic State can operate with such impunity to attack this hotel,” said Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. “The longer [instability] is allowed to fester, and in particular if the Islamists of Libya Dawn don’t actively try to suppress it, then that’s an environment in which the Islamic State can keep growing.”
Until recently, Islamic State focused on the provincial goal of carving out a caliphate from the territories of Iraq and Syria, while leaving foreign targets to al Qaeda’s more global agenda.
Mr. Tamimi cautioned against concluding the two groups are cooperating. But as evidence gathers that Islamic State’s goals have expanded, far-flung Western targets have become increasingly vulnerable to not one, but two, global terrorist groups.
International companies have gone to a heightened state of alert, said a Libyan manager working for a foreign joint venture in Tripoli. “We were asked to vacate our offices and told that they will be closed until Sunday,” the manager said.
The Corinthia has long hosted journalists and temporary offices for international organizations, including meetings of the U.N. support mission in Libya.
The hotel assault began shortly after 9 a.m. when a team of four to five militants detonated a car bomb on the main street in front of the hotel, said Morad Ali, a fighter with Libya Dawn. He said the blast instantly killed three guards, enabling the gunmen to race into the hotel lobby, where they fired at fleeing employees and guests.
Many guests were able to escape the hotel, including Omar al-Hasi, leader of the Libya Dawn militia. But the gunmen took several people hostage before boarding an elevator and holing up between the 20th and 24th floors, Mr. Ali said.
It remained unclear on Tuesday whether Mr. Hasi was the intended target of the assault. Mr. Hasi’s militia isn't known to be in conflict with the local Islamic State affiliate.
A post on the Twitter account claiming to speak for Islamic State-Tripoli Province—a group that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq and Syria—said Tuesday morning that “heroes of the Caliphate” had stormed the hotel, which it said housed “crusader” security companies.
A Twitter account connected to the central Islamic State in Iraq and Syria identified two of the attackers as Abu Ibrahim al-Tunisi and Abu Suleiman al-Sudani—names that likely point to the two men’s origins in Tunisia and Sudan, respectively.
Western Libya is a patchwork of Islamist fighting outfits, a few of which have declared allegiance to Islamic State. Islamic State also claims a presence in the eastern regions of Sirte and Derna, where it has carried out grisly public beheadings of the sort that have become hallmarks of its operations in Iraq and Syria, according a European diplomat and videos posted on social media.
The group designated its siege of the hotel the “Battle of Anas al-Libi, ” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist social networking activity. The name is an apparent reference to an accused al Qaeda operative, a Libyan, who died earlier this month in a hospital in the U.S., where he faced federal trial on charges of helping carry out the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
The claims are consistent with those of Libyan officials and a former top intelligence official, who said recently that Islamic State had sent experienced fighters from Syria to Tripoli.
Former and current intelligence and counterterrorism officials say Islamic State is increasingly using terrorism to retaliate against Western strikes on its territory.
In one case, Libyan volunteers that sought to join Islamic State in Syria were told by its commanders in Syria to stay in their country and carry out attacks there, according to an intelligence official.
The group is also sending French- and English-speaking fighters back home to perpetrate attacks, according to European officials and a Syrian activist whose organization is active in the Syrian Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.
Officials in Tripoli were eager to blame the attacks on their secularist rivals in the country’s east. Without offering evidence, Omar Alkhaddrawi, the head of the Tripoli-based General Administration of the Central Security, told Libya’s state media that preliminary investigations implicated remnants of Gadhafi’s regime. The Islamist-backed cabinet frequently accuse its eastern rivals of ties to Gadhafi loyalists.