For Americans, he is a monster, a major al-Qaeda leader who had a hand in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 224 civilians and—until U.S. Special Forces snatched him off the streets of Tripoli last week—a veteran terrorist tasked with uniting jihadists not just in Libya but across the arc of North Africa.
Sitting down, though, with his wife of 22 years and three sons in their cramped apartment, on the elevated ground floor of a small apartment building in a middle-class district in the Libyan capital on Saturday evening, I heard a different story that didn't fit the bogeyman portrait drawn by American officials.
And it is one that prompts the question: has the U.S. got the right man?
For his family, Abu Anas al-Liby, to use his nom de guerre, is an easy-going husband and kind, playful father who, just days before a Delta Force team grabbed and bundled the 49-year-old out of Libya, told his oldest son, Abdullah, that he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather.
For them, he is a Libyan patriot who sacrificed a great deal. His commitment to the ousting of Libya’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, required them all to suffer, including several years of imprisonment in poor conditions in Iran after the family fled Afghanistan. They say they endured harassment and surveillance in Britain, where they sought political asylum and lived from 1997 to 2000.
It's a very different story from the one told by U.S. officials, who say al-Liby—who was indicted in New York in 2000 in connection with the twin embassy bombings—is a dangerous man. The grand jury indictment named 21 suspects as being involved in the U.S. embassy bombings, including Osama bin Laden. In the indictment, it is alleged that in late 1993, al-Liby and other al-Qaeda members discussed with Ali Mohamed (who was named as a co-conspirator but not as a defendant) about staging a bomb attack against the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. The attack was allegedly meant to serve as a reprisal for American participation in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia.
The indictment also claims—based on information provided by Ali Mohamed—that “in about 1994,” al-Liby with other al-Qaeda members “reviewed files” concerning other possible terrorist targets, including the United States Agency for International Development in Nairobi and British, French and Israeli targets in the Kenyan capital.
Ali Mohamed was a complicated informant—a former Egyptian army major who later enlisted in the U.S. military, he was a double agent who worked both for the CIA and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group founded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as the leader of Al Qaeda. In 2000, Mohamed struck a plea deal with U.S. federal prosecutors to receive a life sentence without parole and he plead guilty to five terrorist charges in connection with the embassy bombings.
Meanwhile, Al-Liby's family lived a peripatetic existence that included spells in Sudan and Qatar.
They always expected the knock at the door.
When it came, it wasn’t a knock. It was the screech of tires outside their home, masked and armed men piling out of vans and cars, shouts of “What do you want?” And then more yelling, the slamming of car doors and then a final screech of tires as the American snatch squad and their Libyan assistants sped away.
U.S. officials celebrated the capture of Abu Anas al-Liby, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai. Against the backdrop of a government shutdown and a dismal American budget showdown, U.S. President Barack Obama showcased the news last week, asserting at a press conference in Washington DC that al-Liby was behind the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. He “helped plan and execute plots that killed hundreds of people, a whole lot of Americans. We have strong evidence of that,” a definitive Obama said. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boasted that “members of al-Qaeda … literally can run but they can’t hide.” American lawmakers praised the military operation.
And the American press joined the chorus. NBC News ran photographs, under the headline "Hiding in Plain Sight," that they claim are of al-Liby at a street party in Tripoli, held a year ago, supposedly to honor his participation in the Libyan uprising and the death of the eldest of his four sons in it. An unnamed U.S. official was quoted in the piece grumbling that al-Liby “has been out in public participating as if he had immunity.”
But his family says he wasn’t hiding—either in plain sight or stashed away. Last month, al-Liby talked with the Libyan attorney general and the head of intelligence to say he was keen to clear his name of the bombing accusations and was ready to face any Libyan judicial inquiry they deemed necessary. He was prepared for an American interrogation—in Libya. On Saturday, 19-year-old Ahmed, the lanky middle brother, who was wearing black tracksuit pants with “Juventus” emblazoned down one leg, handed me a letter dated September 15, 2013 from the attorney general’s office confirming his father’s discussions.
Al-Liby's wife, Umm Abdul Rahman, didn't deny that her husband had briefly been an al-Qaeda member, gravitating to Osama bin Laden after having fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He was badly wounded in the 1988 battle for Jalalabad, with injuries to his jaw and right leg, she said. Dressed in a black niqab and all-enveloping abaya, Rahman, who married al-Liby in Pakistan in 1991 in an arranged marriage, became agitated, pulling out her uncovered hands to emphasize her words. She said al-Liby became disillusioned while in Sudan and broke finally with al-Qaeda by 1996, although she said it might have been earlier.
“My husband was affiliated with al-Qaeda a long time ago. But he was never a senior leader in al-Qaeda," she said. A key factor in the break came when “he got to know the men affiliated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” she said. “They had a common vision, a common cause, a common enemy, which was the Gaddafi regime and they wanted to overthrow this regime.” Al-Liby joined up.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was composed of Islamist dissidents who tried for more than two decades to overthrow Col. Gaddafi and mounted an insurgency in eastern Libya. Several are prominent figures in the new post-Gaddafi Libya. LIFG members fought with the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviet-installed government of Mohammed Najibullah, but their primary reason for being there—according to LIFG leaders Abdel Hakim Belhadj, Sami Mostefa al-Saadi and Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid in several interviews with The Daily Beast—was to develop insurgency skills for anti-Gaddafi battle in Libya. They remained in Afghanistan where they could train and plot, but many fled in the months and years after the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country, suspecting the U.S. would not distinguish between them and al-Qaeda.
It was a justifiable fear. Although the Libyan dissidents claim to have shunned Bin Laden’s efforts to cajole them to join al-Qaeda—a claim many independent experts who have studied the group believe is true—Gaddafi had persuaded the West that the LIFG were dangerous global jihadists, and following a 2004 rapprochement with the Western powers the Libyan dictator was embraced as a partner in the “war on terror.”
More than a dozen LIFG members over the years were subject to renditions by the Americans and British and illegally transferred to Libya. Human Rights Watch describes the renditions as one of the darkest chapters in the war on terror. Many of those rendered endured torture at the hands of the Americans or the British and then finally the Libyans.
One of those rendered Sami Mostefa al-Saadi, who recently sued the British government over his rendition; the case was settled when the government paid $3.5 million in compensation to the Libyan. Al-Saadi says al-Liby, whom he first knew at the university in Tripoli where the latter studied computer engineering, had been a mid-level member of al-Qaeda but quickly became disillusioned because of the terror group’s focus on American and Western targets.
“In the late 1980s, like many Libyans, he joined the fight in Afghanistan against the Russians. He became more religious. When he got to know that Libyan dissidents had formed a group he broke ties with Al Qaeda,” says al-Saadi. He puts the date of the move in late 1994.
What happened to other LIFG members at the hands of American interrogators has played on Rahman’s mind. Her eyes as well as her words betrayed her anxiety now: that her husband will be tortured on the American warship, the USS San Antonio, where it is believed he is being held and interrogated.
She said he is sick, still suffering from the Hepatitis C he contracted during the seven years he was imprisoned in Iran, the first year of which he was separated from the family and held in solitary confinement in an underground jail. They had been smuggled into Iran in 2003 and discovered by Iranian authorities hiding in a village. For four years they were held all together in one room with a tiny bathroom adjacent to a kitchen.
She said: “My husband is very sick. We want to know is my husband alive, is he dead, how’s his health? If he is subjected to any maltreatment or torture he perhaps could die because of the different ailments he is suffering from.” She trailed off into silence and then expresses frustration at Obama for his claim that her husband is a mass murderer. “These are false accusations and it is very hurtful and worrisome when the President of the United States characterizes my husband as a killer and a killer of hundreds without providing any evidence, without providing any proof. Isn’t the accused innocent until proven guilty? I think it was irresponsible for Obama to claim that my husband is a killer and a killer of hundreds. It is unfair.”
She pointed out that they were in Britain when the bombings happened and that they were under tight surveillance, with their home being raided frequently and her husband’s computers seized. She is sure that if British intelligence had any evidence, they would have acted and the British authorities would have agreed to an extradition request made by the Americans during their stint in the U.K.
Despite claims in British tabloid newspapers that al-Liby left Britain secretly—the British media doesn’t seem to have realized the entire family were there—she said they left openly and legally by flying out of the country. She had just given birth to their daughter, Hala, and the surveillance and harassment made them feel unsafe.
Of American allegations that al-Liby has been an active jihadist since the ouster of Gaddafi and had been tasked to oversee al-Qaeda groups across North Africa, she said this is untrue. He was applying to get his old work at the Ministry of Oil back as a computer engineer, she said—a job he held before going off to fight the Russians. She showed me a document from the oil ministry that listed him as one of the men waiting to be re-hired.
Her oldest son, Abdullah, exploded with exasperation as his mother talked. “We have suffered a lot,” he said. The call to prayer sounded outside. “My older brother fought in the revolution and died. And what more can we give for this country. And then all of sudden my father is taken away. My mother for eight days has not cooked one meal. She has not been able to do anything. She is depressed. There is nothing we can focus on now except our father.”
Abdullah sported a thin beard and moustache. He is a strapping 20-year-old with dark intense eyes but flashed a friendly smile. Like his mother, he used his hands expressively when speaking. Both he and Ahmed seemed frank and open. Ahmed, though, who was sitting on a red mattress pushed against the wall, was on the edge of tears for most of the evening. He struggled to quell his emotions. The youngest son, 17-year-old Abdul Muhaimin, was withdrawn, speaking little and often leaving the interview. Their 13-year-old sister never appeared.
All the boys are in high school. They lost years of education and had no schooling while detained in Iran. Two of the boys hope now to become engineers; another aspires to being a doctor. The Iranians released the family in May 2010, except for al-Liby, who was held for several more months, and who made it out after the uprising started against Gaddafi. He joined up with other LIFG fighters in Libya’s Western Mountains and arrived with them in Tripoli for the liberation of the city, where he learned his eldest son had been shot, down the street from the family home, on August 21, 2011.
“We want to talk to our father,” Abdullah said. “We want to reach out to him. We want to know how he’s doing. Right now we are just living that same day over and over, the day of the kidnapping.”
The Libyan government also is describing the snatching of al-Liby as a kidnapping and the Prime Minister, Ali Zidan, who is coming under increasing political pressure over the incident, has told the family he had no prior knowledge of the raid, despite the claims of Secretary of State Kerry to the contrary.
Last Thursday, Zidan himself was briefly kidnapped by Islamist militiamen, possibly goaded on by senior politicians, before being freed by rival militiamen loyal to the Prime Minister. It now appears that the kidnappers had started to plan Zidan’s abduction before the Americans’ seizing of al-Liby, but the final trigger for their action came from outrage over the seizure.
The beleaguered Zidan government, struggling to impose some order on the chaos and anarchy of post-Gaddafi Libya, may well not survive, partly thanks to the U.S. raid. If what al-Liby’s wife and sons said is true—that he was not a significant player in al-Qaeda, didn’t commit or plan the 1998 embassy bombings and broke with the terror group many years ago—then not only has the U.S. committed a terrible injustice but it may have sealed the fate of Zidan’s government.