Libya’s New Normal: When a Prime Minister Gets Kidnapped in Broad Daylight

In the wake of the recent U.S. commando raid, the Prime Minister's kidnapping reveals the extent of Libya's dysfunction

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Ismail Zetouni / Reuters

Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan speaks during a news conference in Tripoli on Jan. 3, 2013

A sign of Libya’s precarious security situation and deep dysfunction, militia aligned with members of the government’s own Ministry of Interior snatched Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from his five-star hotel in central Tripoli on Thursday morning. His capture, which lasted a few hours, was in apparent retaliation for the Oct. 5 U.S. commando raid against a key al-Qaeda operative, Abu Anas al-Liby. Although Zeidan was freed later in the morning, the kidnapping confirmed for many Libyans and Westerners just how fragile the country is — and how the U.S. rendition of al-Liby has shaken Libya’s delicate status quo.

That the head of a government can be captured in broad daylight, in the heart of his own capital, says a lot about Libya’s current state. Much of the authority in Libya lies not within Tripoli’s modern government buildings, but with a patchwork of heavily armed groups who were formed, town by town, during the 2011 war against Muammar Gaddafi. Their rivalry has now splintered Libya into a series of ministates, where former militia collect revenues and operate their own justice systems.

In a country awash in weaponry after Gaddafi’s 2011 collapse, Tripoli’s government has corralled some of the more organized militia into securing the capital, home to foreign embassies, international oil companies and many other crucial levers of power. One such group, the Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries, snatched Zeidan from his hotel on Thursday. Aligned with the Ministry of Interior, the group issued a statement after freeing Zeidan, saying it had taken the Prime Minister as punishment for having green-lighted the U.S. raid. “His arrest comes after … [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry] said the Libyan government was aware of the operation,” a member of the group told Reuters.

U.S. officials told reporters after Saturday’s raid that they had consulted with Libya’s government during the past weeks, and they had tacit approval for the raid on al-Liby and for a second raid against the main suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed; that raid has not happened. U.S. officials flew al-Liby out of the country, reportedly for interrogation on a U.S. Navy vessel in the Mediterranean; he is under indictment in New York for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Initially, Zeidan expressed shock at the raid and issued a statement on Sunday that the government had “been in touch with the U.S. government and have asked for clarification on this matter.” Yet his words rang hallow, with many questioning how the U.S. military could have snatched a Libyan citizen off the street in broad daylight and flown him out of the country without government knowledge.

(MORE: U.S. Tripoli Raid Deepens Sense of Chaos in Libya)

Although Zeidan had little choice but to employ hard-line militia for security (they were the best fighting force left standing after 2011 war), the decision has made governing an intact Libya nearly impossible. Militia leaders have stonewalled critical government decisions and sabotaged others. For example, the group controlling the western Libyan city of Zintan has refused to transfer Gaddafi’s once powerful son Saif al-Islam for trial in Tripoli after seizing him in the desert nearly two years ago. And for much of August and September, the country’s crucial oil exports were largely locked in, as groups controlling Eastern Libya blocked the ports and halted production.

The fear now is that the U.S. raid could provoke retaliation against American assets in the country. ExxonMobil, Marathon, Occidental and other oil companies all have long-term contracts with Libya, though as the risks mount and the predicted production bonanza fails to materialize, all have expressed interest in getting out. The great bulk of Libya’s foreign earnings comes from oil. “If there is retaliation against oil and gas facilities in Libya as a result of the U.S. raid, it would be a big hit for the Libyan economy,” American consultant Geoff Porter, head of North Africa Risk Consulting who has decades of experience in the region, told TIME. “Oil companies evaluate risk relative to other environments, and they see if the risk measures up against the upside.”

The downside is certainly rising. In a note to clients on Monday, Porter warned that U.S. companies could be prime targets after al-Liby’s arrest, especially since Tripoli’s government is too weak to protect them. “There has been no response from the Libyan government condemning posts on Facebook that encourage Libyans to kidnap American citizens and to attack oil and gas infrastructure in retaliation for the U.S. raid,” Porter wrote. “The likely reason for this silence is that the Zeidan government knows that it would be unable to stand behind any condemnation of calls for revenge.”

Indeed, Zeidan was snatched from one of the safest places in all of Libya: the Corinthia, a five-star Maltese-owned high-rise hotel across from Tripoli’s central market. Thanks to its reputation for watertight security, Zeidan has been living there, along with several diplomats and foreign organizations; it was where the U.S. embassy staff and U.S. oil companies based themselves when they returned to Tripoli after economic sanctions ended in 2004. The hotel is blocked from the street and has a long, steep circular driveway, where armed guards scan cars and search every visitor.

Yet nothing can truly safeguard a city that is riven within itself — and whose key armed forces are hostile to those supposedly in power. In a prescient remark in his note to clients on Monday, Porter added that al-Liby’s capture proved that “even in the capital itself, there are very few deterrents to doing almost anything, whether it is criminality, political violence, political activism …” Or, it seems, kidnapping the Prime Minister.