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 he was involved in militant activities in Libya.
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 ties with a belt of radical groups across North Africa and Egypt.
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.