In a day of high drama in Tripoli, Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zidan, was kidnapped by armed militants from the suite of his luxury hotel and then several hours later was released by his abductors, possibly under threat from forces loyal to the government.
The details of the abduction remain unclear, but the kidnappers, members of semiofficial brigades that fought in the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, apparently snatched him in retaliation for the seizure of an al Qaeda suspect, Abu Anas al-Liby, by U.S. special forces. The kidnapping was a disturbing sign of the lawlessness in Libya that Zidan and his government have been unable to curb.
A government spokesman, Mohammed Kaabar, told the local news agency, LANA, that Zidan had been “set free.” But would provide no other details. Eyewitnesses said about 150 gunmen were involved in Zidan’s abduction from the Corinthia Hotel. The prime minister has an office and suite on the 21st floor.
The kidnappers claim to have been issued with an arrest warrant provided by Nuri Ali Abu Sahmain, who is president of Libya’s General National Congress. A spokesman, Jamma Zubian, said in a statement: “The revolutionaries have collected a lot of documents against Mr. Zidan about corruption and security issues. He knew about the American raid against Abu Anas al-Liby, and he did nothing to prevent that.”
Party leaders condemned the abduction, including the Islamist Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some other Islamist groups remained silent, and the al Qaeda–inspired Ansar al-Sharia, a brigade implicated in the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed ambassador Christopher Stevens, took the opportunity to renew its call for attacks on Westerners.
The abduction came just five days after U.S. special forces entered Libya and seized al-Liby, prompting anger among Islamic militant groups and accusations of Zidan having given the go-ahead for what they saw as a violation of Libyan sovereignty.
As confusion and panic gripped Tripoli, militia leaders from an umbrella group, the Committee for Fighting Crime, which assists the country’s Interior Ministry to combat drug trafficking but acts independently of the government, claimed to have been responsible. The same group was linked to a blockade of ministries and occupation of the Parliament during the spring.
Zidan was freed after several hours in the hands of the gunmen. A militia commander affiliated with the Interior Ministry told a private Libyan television station that the prime minister was freed when members of a Tripoli-based militia stormed the house where he was held hostage.
Leaders of the rebel organization, which also is referred to as the Tripoli Revolutionaries Control Room, said the seizure of the prime minister shouldn’t been seen as a kidnapping but as an arrest. One of them told Reuters that it was an action triggered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement earlier this week in which he insisted the Libyan government had given approval for the snatching of al-Liby.
Al-Liby was seized by a Delta Force team from outside his Tripoli home when returning from early morning prayers. He is suspected of involvement in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that left more than 200 dead.
Abdel-Moneim al-Hour, an official with the Anti-Crime Committee, said Zidan was arrested on accusations of harming state security, although the public prosecutor’s office had issued no warrant for the prime minister’s arrest.
Libya’s cabinet held an emergency meeting this morning as Al-Arabiya TV station broadcast images showing Zidan looking disheveled and dazed being escorted by his abductors.
Revolutionary militias have held the country hostage for months, and the government has been unable to lift a two-month blockade of ports and oilfields by an assortment of brigades, some linked with federalists in Benghazi who want semiautonomy for eastern Libya and others angered over government policies.
The country’s fledgling national army of a few thousand is no match for the powerful militias, including brigades from Misrata and Zintan, affiliated with the umbrella group behind the kidnapping. Many of the soldiers still take their orders from their revolutionary brigade leaders and only pay-lip service to either the interior or defense ministries.
The militias behind the seizing of the prime minister have close relations with former members of the now disbanded Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose stalwarts include Libyan lawmakers such as Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid, a member of the national-security committee in the General National Congress, Libya’s parliament.
In an interview with The Daily Beast earlier this year Qaid warned against the U.S. putting boots on the ground in Libya and making an effort to seize suspects behind the razing of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last year. “America should not try to bypass the Libyan government—it will prompt a reaction not just from the extremists but from all Libyans, who are sensitive to territorial sovereignty,” he said.
Other former members of the group include Sami al-Saadi, who turned down a job in Zidan’s government and has been a critic of the prime minister, arguing that he was shutting out the revolutionaries who fought Gaddafi and overthrew him. Al-Saadi was one of the organizers of the militias’ blockade of government ministries last spring. That blockade was successful in forcing the General National Congress to pass a law barring senior Gaddafi-era officials from being lawmakers or working for the government.
“Libya is now in grave danger, and it is not clear what’s going to happen. Unless we gain some control, Libya will turn into a Somalia,” warned politician and journalist Abdurrahman Shater. “We are going to face a future of warlordism and no law and order for several years if this continues.”
In the immediate wake of the seizing of al-Liby, who had also been a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group before allegedly joining al Qaeda, Libyan Islamists took to social-media forums to denounce the U.S. action, portraying Zidan as a puppet of the West and dismissing claims of official Libyan ignorance. Even some liberal commentators said that the raid was an embarrassment that could endanger Zidan.
The prime minister denied having given the green light for the U.S. raid, but his critics claimed the denials were a disingenuous attempt to avert a violent backlash. On Wednesday the country’s justice minister said Libya would pursue the U.S. through international courts and demanded the release of al-Liby, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai. He is being held on an American warship in the Mediterranean.
Zidan met with al-Liby’s wife and other members of his family on Wednesday night. But he has been noticeable restrained in his public comments about the U.S. action, saying it won’t damage Libyan-American relations.