Willy Lowry

President Joe Biden’s administration has notified Congress of its intent to resume embassy operations in Tripoli, Libya, after a decade-long absence. The US withdrew embassy staff in July 2014 in a dramatic overland escape, as civil war raged throughout the North African country. Since then, the US has operated a diplomatic mission out of neighbouring Tunisia, with staff members making occasional short sorties to Tripoli.

The National has learned that those stays will become more routine as the State Department plans to establish an interim diplomatic facility within a protected compound in Tripoli. This will allow for a more robust US presence in the capital and the country. In March last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing that he wanted to “to re-establish an ongoing presence in Libya”.

While no timeline has been given for the embassy operations, it is likely to take at least a year and half for the State Department to get the interim facility up and running.

“This plan is the culmination of over two years of extensive internal department planning, weighing the policy objectives and challenges associated with a persistent diplomatic presence in Libya,” a State Department spokesperson said. It comes after the situation on the ground has stabilised, with the last major episode of violence ending in 2020 with a ceasefire.

The country remains divided, however, between the UN-backed Government of National Unity, which controls the capital Tripoli and much of the west, and the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which is allied with a parliament-confirmed government and controls the east and south. The US appears to be following a trend among western countries in resuming its presence in Tripoli.

“There has been a series of western democracies that were able to return to Tripoli in terms of their diplomatic presence, nations like Italy, France, the Netherlands, Britain,” said Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in the UK. “This return has happened over the last couple of years and the US is kind of standing out in terms of its hesitation to spend the night in Tripoli.” Washington may also be trying to counter what it views as Russian interference in Libya.

“There’s a race on the diplomatic front to be talking about soft power, presence, charm offensive, business contracts, opportunities – this is the atmosphere in Libya,” Mr Harchaoui told The National. “So once you have taken into consideration this overall dynamic, you understand why it’s difficult for the US to keep temporising and delaying its return.”

The State Department said that by maintaining a regular diplomatic presence in the country it will be able to better assist Libya in “preventing the country from becoming enmeshed in rising instability in the Sahel region” as well as “promoting Libyan economic stability, US trade and investment opportunities, and global energy security”. The US has a fraught diplomatic history with Libya. In 2012, four Americans including ambassador Christopher Stevens were killed when members of the militant group Ansar Al Sharia stormed a US consular compound in Benghazi.

As the State Department looks to gradually increase its presence in the country, the security of its personnel will remain at the forefront of its planning, it said. “The department’s highest priority is the safety and security of our personnel, and the embassy operation plan clearly defines safeguards to ensure our ability to carry out our mission safely and effectively,” the spokesperson said.


Willy Lowry is an award-winning senior correspondent based in the US. He has produced a wide range of stories from across North America and the Middle East — from the fall of ISIS in Syria to a camel beauty pageant in the Liwa Desert. Before joining The National he was a freelancer in Tanzania, where he produced stories for AJ+, CNN, The New York Times, National Geographic and many others. Previously, he spent four years working as a video journalist for CBC News in Montreal. Willy speaks English, French and basic Swahili.


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