The murder of British oil company executive Mark de Salis, whose body was found alongside that of a New Zealand companion on a beach west of the Libyan capital on Thursday, has sent a shudder through the expatriate community in the country and threatens serious damage to the country’s oil industry.
De Salis, the first Briton to be killed in Libya since the Arab spring revolution, was one of the pillars of the tight-knit foreign business community. His murder has thrust the spotlight on to the growing power of jihadist militias.
“He was a really decent guy, part of the crowd of British guys in Libya who new people would gravitate to for advice,” said John Hamilton, a director of London-based oil consultancy Cross-border Information. “He was one of those people who was prepared to stick it out through the tough times. It will have a terrible impact for the oil sector.”
De Salis was found lying face down on a beach near the town of Sabratha, which is 96.5km west of Tripoli and famous for its ruined Roman city, beside the body of a female friend from New Zealand who has not yet been named.
The pair had taken advantage of good weather over the New Year to hire a Toyota car and make for a beach that is popular with Libyans and foreigners alike.
However, the area they chose to visit had been tense since the arrest last week of four armed US servicemen, who were stopped after an argument at a nearby checkpoint. The four, who were attached to the US embassy, were later released amid speculation in Tripoli that they were checking on radical militia based in the area.
“Islamist violence directed at expat workers in the extractive industries is an increasing concern, not just in Libya but across north Africa,” said Duncan Bullivant, chief executive of British security firm Henderson Risk. “It’s a bad sign that this happened near Tripoli, which people had assumed was relatively safe.”
The shock has also been deeply felt among Libyans, many desperate to reintegrate into the outside world after 40 years of isolation under the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Sabratha City Council issued a statement condemning the killing and expressing condolences to the victims’ families.
De Salis, 48, a power manager with energy company First Engineering, worked in Libya before the Arab spring for OPS International, an oil engineering firm whose chairman Gavin is De Salis’ brother.
Mark de Salis’ family said in a statement released by the British Foreign Office that he had returned to work in Libya after the 2011 revolution because he “liked the Libyan people” and that he was “a decent and incredibly loyal man, and he was loved by many.”
The deaths appear to suggest a dangerous new trend among Libya’s jihadists for targeted killings. Last month, US chemistry teacher Ronnie Smith, 33, was shot dead in Benghazi by gunmen in a car as he went jogging near his home. Smith had posted tweets relating his concern about Islamist radicals after a spate of killings in the city.
Until last month, extremists had focused on attacks on embassies, most prominently the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three fellow officials in a rocket strike in Benghazi in September 2012.
The latest targeted killings come two weeks after the first use in Libya of a suicide attack — a truck bomb was exploded at an army checkpoint in Benghazi, killing 13 soldiers.