On Saturday, October 5, United States Special Forces carried out a raid in Tripoli that resulted in the capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi. U.S. Army personnel from a three-car convoy pulled up outside of al-Libi’s place of residence and abducted him without any violent struggle. This effort to apprehend rather than kill a terrorist suspect, along with a similar raid in Somalia, marks a departure from the Obama administration’s prevailing preference to use remote targeting and drones to deny and disrupt al-Qaeda networks.
Al-Libi was primarily wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks killed 257 people and injured over 5,000. Al-Libi was indicted for his part in the operation, which consisted of taking surveillance photographs of the embassy in Nairobi. Twenty other al-Qaeda operatives were implicated in the attacks following indictments in 1998, with only three of them still at large today. In addition to his part in the bombing, al-Libi was once regarded as a “computer expert” for al-Qaeda, and he reportedly spent time with the core of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
Al-Libi’s last encounter with law enforcement authorities was in Manchester, United Kingdom in 1999. After Muammar Qaddafi’s regime pressured the Sudanese government to expel many al-Qaeda militants (on the suspicion that the organization was targeting the Libyan dictator), al-Libi fled from Sudan to the United Kingdom and applied for political asylum. He was arrested by Scotland Yard but released when no evidence linking him to the Nairobi bombing could be produced by British intelligence authorities. In 2000, however, the authorities raided al-Libi’s apartment and found what came to be referred to as “The Manchester Manual” (PDF), an al-Qaeda handbook that included political and spiritual rhetoric as well as “best practices” for paramilitary operations. During the 2000 raid, al-Libi had already fled the United Kingdom for the region.
According to anonymous U.S. sources, al-Libi is currently being detained at sea for questioning aboard the USS San Antonio. The case of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali militant captured in April 2011, is providing a model for al-Libi’s interrogation at sea and eventual plans to try him in a federal court in New York. By capturing a suspected terrorist as an enemy combatant but later trying him in a court of law, the information gained from the suspect before he is read his Miranda rights can be used by intelligence agencies, but only information disclosed after he understands his legal protection can be used for prosecution in court. There are some complications with al-Libi’s detention, however, including legal questions about how long after an attack the U.S. can claim legal action as a function of self-defense. There is also the question of whether or not keeping him at sea indefinitely violates the Geneva Conventions.
There have already been substantial political consequences as a result of the raid. Libyan extremist groups denounced the raid in online forums, prompting concerns about reprisal activity. The Libyan government publically characterized the raid as a “kidnapping,” condemning the prosecution of Libyan citizens in foreign courts. On Monday, Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani summoned U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones to answer for the operation. U.S. officials claim the Libyan government tacitly acquiesced to the raid several weeks before it took place. There were also reportedly plans for a separate operation to capture militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala, a chief suspect in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. It is unclear why both raids did not occur this past weekend, and there are concerns that the successful apprehension of al-Libi may give Khattala reason to be more discreet and vigilant about possible U.S. action. The New York Times speculated that “the backlash against a second raid could bring down the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, which has teetered on the brink of collapse and has little control over vast parts of the country.” These fears were at least partially validated on Thursday when Zeidan was abducted by armed gunmen from the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Chamber, a militia organization loosely affiliated with the Libyan state. Zeidan has since been released, and while the group characterized his “arrest” as a response to Libya’s supposed allowance of the U.S. raid, confusion remains as to exactly who ordered his detention.