The death Friday night in a New York hospital of onetime al Qaeda operative and accused bomber Abu Anas al Liby throws into question the original decision to send in U.S. commandos just over a year ago to snatch him off the streets of his hometown of Tripoli. His deteriorating health was an open secret and one likely known to U.S. intelligence chiefs, who had the Libyan native under close surveillance for months before ordering the raid to go ahead.
He was never likely to live long enough to face a trial. He died Friday night from complications from a Hepatitis C infection he contracted while imprisoned along with his family in Iran after they fled Afghanistan in the face of the U.S. invasion. Family members say he developed also liver cancer after his capture.
Al Liby—his real name was Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai—was accused of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans, and was indicted in absentia in 2001 by a New York grand jury. His family and close friends insist he was innocent of the charges and that he split from al Qaeda years before the bombings took place. They question why he wasn’t arrested earlier in the UK where the family lived between 1997 and 2000 and applied for asylum, which was denied.
And they blame the U.S. for his death. He showed all the signs of the end-stages of liver failure. But medical experts say being able to take advantage of American health care almost certainly prolonged his life. His lawyer in the United States notified the family of the 50-year-old’s death. A document filed in court Saturday by Department of Justice lawyers said al Liby “was taken (Wednesday) from the Metropolitan Correctional Center to a New York hospital due to sudden complications arising out of his long-standing medical problems."
U.S. officials made much of al Liby’s capture when Delta Force commandos executed a smooth and trouble free raid outside his home in October 2013 after he returned from early morning prayers. The Obama administration needed good news. It was still suffering from the fallout of the 2012 razing of the U.S. mission in Benghazi and the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Against the backdrop of a government shutdown and a dismal American budget showdown, President Barack Obama showcased the raid, asserting at a Washington, D.C., press conference 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 were quick to praise the military operation. It was a rare moment of bipartisan unity in partisan Washington.
But family and close friends told the Daily Beast in the weeks after his capture a more complicated and nuanced story, one much grayer than the U.S. version.
Al Liby's wife, Umm Abdul Rahman, acknowledged her husband had 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. But al Liby became disillusioned while in Sudan with al Qaeda and broke with the terror organization by 1996, she said, although 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 told me. 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 hardline Islamist dissidents who tried for more than two decades to overthrow Gaddafi and mounted an insurgency in eastern 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 their leaders Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Sami Mostefa al Saadi —was to develop insurgency skills for the battle against Gaddafi 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. Some, however, did formally join al Qaeda.
When he appeared in federal court in New York, al Libya pleaded not guilty to the terrorism charges and said he had played no part in the 1998 bombings in east Africa.
The 2001 grand jury indictment named 21 suspects as being involved in the U.S. embassy bombings, including Osama bin Laden. Much of the indictment was based on the testimony of Ali Mohamed —a former Egyptian army major, who later enlisted in the U.S. military and was at times a double agent working 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.
The indictment claimed—based on information provided by Ali Mohamed—that “in about 1994,” al Liby with other al Qaeda members “reviewed files” concerning possible terrorist targets in east Africa.
Whatever the full truth, the snatching of al Liby caused major problems for Libya’s then beleaguered prime minister Ali Zidan, who denied he had prior knowledge of the raid. He wasn’t believed and within days enraged Islamist gunmen briefly kidnapped Zidan.
While it’s probably too much to say that the raid that led to al Liby’s capture made the situation in Libya worse, the retaliatory show of force against Zidan was a glimpse of the chaos that would soon engulf Libya.