Libya’s beleaguered Prime Minister Ali Zidan is likely to be hit by more political fallout from the U.S. nabbing two weeks ago of an al-Qaeda suspect off the streets of Tripoli, with Islamist politicians planning to use the American military action to try to oust him.
His Islamist opponents say they are pressing to discover whether anyone in Libya’s government gave the Obama administration the nod to seize alleged terrorist Abu Anas al-Liby. He was snatched on October 5 and whisked out of the country by a Special Forces team as he was returning from dawn prayers to his home in the middle-class Noufle’een district of the Libyan capital. Last week, he appeared in New York to answer charges of terrorism.
Meanwhile, more details are beginning to emerge about the seriousness of al-Liby’s medical condition. Last week, al-Liby’s family disclosed that he suffered from a Hepatitis C infection, contracted while he was imprisoned in Iran. But it now appears his health is more precarious than previously reported, with the virus far advanced—causing, among other complications, cirrhosis of the liver and an enlarged spleen. According to his family, the liver problems have been causing blackouts, and his immune system is highly fragile.
With terror trials tending to be prolonged—the case against Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh took nearly two years—the cost of al-Liby’s s medical treatment to U.S. taxpayers is likely to be high. If treated early enough, 50 to 80 percent of people who contract Hepatitis C are cured. But it is also known as the” silent killer”—10,000 Americans a year die from complications caused by Hepatitis C. Those with advanced Hepatitis C infections can require liver transplants and chemotherapy to reduce the swelling of their spleens; a high proportion of those with an advanced infection go on to develop liver cancer.
“His chances of making it to the conclusion of a long terror trial are very thin, unless he has a liver transplant,’ says Dr. James Le Fanu, a British physician and medical author. “Of course prognosis isn’t an exact science but judging from the symptoms you are describing he is close to the end-stages of liver failure, and depending how advanced the infection is he may have just weeks or months to live without a transplant.”
Le Fanu adds: “It sounds far advanced and the prognosis is poor. What happens is that the inflammation of the liver triggered by the infection causes it to contract and it becomes a fibrous blob. The liver cells fulfill about 3,000 biochemical functions but they are massively reduced by tough connective tissue. What that does is alter the dynamics of the blood. All the blood from the gut flows into the liver but when you have the problem al-Liby has the vessels shut down and there is a build up and you get an expansion of the veins in the esophagus, stomach and spleen and you can get catastrophic bleeding in the stomach that is difficult to control.”
U.S. officials acknowledged to The Daily Beast that al-Liby’s poor medical condition, which prompted the U.S. to transfer him sooner than planned to New York from the warship where he was being interrogated, could complicate his subsequent trial with health-related delays and holdups.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington DC-based think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies believes it is unlikely that U.S. intelligence didn’t know about al-Liby’s medical condition before grabbing him. “They would have had him under surveillance and gathered a lot of information about him,” Schanzer says.
Al-Liby’s family and friends dismiss U.S. claims that he was operating as an al-Qaeda leader in Libya, tasked with pulling together the burgeoning operations of the terror group’s affiliates across North Africa.
Although acknowledging he was at one time a member of Al Qaeda, al-Liby’s wife, Umm Abdul Rahman, insists he left the terror group years before the embassy bombings. She says he became disillusioned with Osama bin Laden, claiming he broke ties with al-Qaeda in about 1996 to join instead a Libyan Islamist opposition group fighting to overthrow Gaddafi.
Zidan and his top officials have insisted they had no prior knowledge of the American operation to seize al-Liby. But this hasn’t blunted Islamist criticism of Zidan, a former political exile and human rights lawyer, who was abducted himself briefly last week by Islamist gunmen in a political power play fueled in part by accusations he approved the American commando operation to capture al-Liby.
U.S. authorities allege al-Liby was involved in twin embassy bombings in Africa. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the operation the day after al-Liby’s capture, saying he was a “legal and appropriate target.” Al-Liby had a $5 million FBI bounty on his head and was indicted along with 20 others in 2000.
The head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party, Mohamed Sowan, is arguing it is time for Zidan to go, accusing him of mismanaging the government on a host of issues. He is canvassing members of Libya’s parliament to see if he has enough votes to sack Zidan.
And influential Islamist politician Sami al-Saadi, who declined a cabinet position in Zidan’s government in January, says even if Zidan didn’t know beforehand about the raid, that doesn’t let him off the hook. “If he did know it is a problem, and if he didn’t know it is a bigger problem because it shows that he doesn’t know what is happening in the country and it is a failure of government.”
Calls for Zidan’s departure are likely to mount from other political quarters, too, following an explosion of violence this weekend in the eastern city of Benghazi, where a top military commander was assassinated triggering militia-on-militia violence. This weekend marked the second anniversary of the death of Libya’s longtime dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi, but celebrations were subdued.
Al-Liby—his real name is Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai—is accused of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians. He was arraigned last week before a federal judge in New York and entered a plea of not guilty.
Some of Zidan’s political allies blame Kerry for encouraging speculation that the Libyan leader knew the raid was going to take place. The morning after al-Liby was snatched Kerry appeared to imply the Libyan government had been informed beforehand when he refused to comment on what the Libyans knew.
In briefings with some reporters U.S. officials indicated tacit Libyan approval had been provided. Later, Kerry said categorically Libyan authorities had not been informed of the counter-terrorism operation.
Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani in an interview last week with the Daily Beast backed up Zidan, saying the Prime Minister did not know. But he was careful to add that as far as he is aware no one else in the Libyan government gave consent.