A suspected Libyan al-Qaida figure nabbed by U.S. special forces in a dramatic operation in Tripoli was living freely in his homeland for the past two years, after a trajectory that took him to Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran, where he had been detained for years, his family said Sunday.
The Libyan government bristled at the raid, asking Washington to explain the “kidnapping.”
The swift Delta Force operation in the streets of the Libyan capital that seized the militant known as Abu Anas al-Libi was one of two assaults Saturday that showed an American determination to move directly against terror suspects – even in two nations mired in chaos where the U.S. has suffered deadly humiliations in the past.
Hours before the Libya raid, a Navy SEAL team swam ashore in the East African nation of Somalia and engaged in a fierce firefight, though it did not capture its target, a leading militant in the al-Qaida-linked group that carried out the recent Kenyan mall siege.
“We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday at an economic summit in Indonesia. “Members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.”
Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Libi, was accused by the U.S. of involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed more than 220 people. He has been on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list since it was introduced shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, with a $5 million bounty on his head.
U.S. officials depicted his capture as a significant blow against al-Qaida, which has lost a string of key figures, including leader Osama bin Laden, killed in a 2011 raid in Pakistan.
However, it was unclear whether the 49-year-old al-Libi had a major role in the terror organization – his alleged role in the 1998 attack was to scout one of the targeted embassies – and there was no immediate word that he had been involved in militant activities in Libya. His family and former associates denied he was ever a member of al-Qaida and said he had not been engaged in any activities since coming home in 2011.
But the raid signaled a U.S. readiness to take action against militants in Libya, where al-Qaida and other armed Islamic groups have gained an increasingly powerful foothold since the 2011 ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi and have set up tied with a belt of radical groups across North Africa and Egypt.
Libya’s central government remains weak, and armed militias – many of them made up of Islamic militants – hold sway in many places around the country, including in parts of the capital. Amid the turmoil, Libyan authorities have been unable to move against militants, including those behind the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Libyan security officials themselves are regularly targeted by gunmen. The latest victim, a military colonel, was gunned down in Benghazi on Sunday.
Several dozen members of the Islamic group Ansar al-Sharia, which has links to militias, protested on Sunday in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, denouncing al-Libi’s abduction and criticizing the government. “Where are the men of Tripoli while this is happening?” they chanted, waving black Islamist flags.
Al-Libi’s capture was a bold strike in the Libyan capital. He had just parked his car outside his Tripoli home, returning from dawn prayers Saturday, when 10 commandos in multiple vehicles surrounded him, his brother Nabih al-Ruqai told the Associated Press. They smashed his car’s window and seized his gun before grabbing al-Libi and fleeing.
He was swiftly spirited out of the country. U.S. Defense Department spokesman George Little said he was being held “in a secure location outside of Libya.” He did not elaborate further.
In a statement Sunday, the Libyan government said it asked the U.S. for “clarifications” about what it called the “kidnapping,” underlining that its citizens should be tried in Libyan courts if accused of a crime. It said it hoped its “strategic partnership” with Washington would not be damaged by the incident.
Still, the relatively soft-toned statement underlined the predicament of the Libyan government. It is criticized by opponents at home over its ties with Washington, but it is also reliant on security cooperation with the Americans.
According to the federal indictment of al-Libi in a New York court, American prosecutors say he helped the African embassy bombings by scouting and photographing the embassy in Nairobi in 1993. Al-Libi was a computer expert who studied electronic and nuclear engineering at Tripoli University.
Al-Libi’s son Abdullah al-Ruqai told The Associated Press his father was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Islamic militant group that waged a campaign of violence against Gadhafi’s regime in the 1990s. Many of the group’s members – including al-Libi, were forced to flee the country at the time. A faction of the group allied with al-Qaida, though others in the group refused to.
Al-Libi is believed to have spent time in Sudan in the 1990s, when bin Laden was based there. In 1995, al-Libi later turned up in Britain, where he was granted political asylum under unclear circumstances and lived in Manchester. He was arrested by Scotland Yard in 1999, but released because of lack of evidence and later fled Britain.
Abdullah said the family then went to Afghanistan, where they spent a year and a half until they fled into Iran, where they were held in custody for seven years. Abdullah did not elaborate, but Iran jailed a number of al-Qaida-linked figures who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of that country.
The family returned to Tripoli in 2010 under a rehabilitation program for Islamic militants run by Gadhafi’s son, and al-Libi himself returned in August 2011, amid the uprising that toppled Gadhafi. Since then, al-Libi was not involved with any groups.
“He would go from the house to the mosque, and from the mosque to the house,” Abdullah said. He said his father had hired a lawyer and was trying to clear his name in connection to the 1998 embassy attacks.
In the earlier raid Saturday, the Navy SEAL team targeted a figure from the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab. After landing on shore, the team assaulted a beachside house in the town of Barawe. The team ran into fiercer resistance than expected, and after a 15- to 20-minute firefight in which they inflicted some casualties on the fighters, the unit’s leader decided to abort the mission and the Americans swam away, a U.S officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the raid publicly.
The assault was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout in 2011, one senior U.S. military official said.
Little confirmed that U.S. military personnel were involved in a counterterrorism operation against a known al-Shabab terrorist in Somalia, but did not provide details.
The leader of al-Shabab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Ahmed Godane, claimed responsibility for the mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, a four-day terrorist siege that began Sept. 21 and killed at least 67 people. A Somali intelligence official said the al-Shabab leader was the U.S. target.
The raid in Somalia came 20 years after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, when a mission to capture Somali warlords in the capital went awry after militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters. Eighteen U.S. soldiers died in the battle, which marked the beginning of the end of that U.S. military mission to try to bring stability to the nation.
Since then, U.S. military intervention has been limited to missile attacks and lightning operations by special forces.