Terror Trials

Libya Eyes Funding Al-Liby Defense In Terrorism Trial

As accused al-Qaeda operative Anas al-Liby appears in court to face terrorism charges, Libya’s government is weighing whether to fund his defense, and maintaining they had no knowledge of his impending abduction by U.S. special forces. Jamie Dettmer reports from Tripoli.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

Tripoli, Libyai: Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Liby got to speak with his family in Libya yesterday afternoon, the first time he has had contact with them since he was snatched 10 days ago from the streets of Tripoli by a U.S. Special Forces team.

Libyan Justice Minister, Salah al-Mirghani, told The Daily Beast that the fact that al-Liby, who appeared before a federal court in New York yesterday to plead not guilty to terrorism charges, was allowed to speak with his wife and children is “reassuring to us.”

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 left 224 civilians dead. A Delta Force team grabbed him on October 5 as he was returning home from dawn prayers in front of his home in a middle-class district in Tripoli; he was then bundled out of the country and held on board an American warship, the USS San Antonio, in the Mediterranean Sea.

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Beast over the weekend, his wife, Umm Abdul Rahman, insisted her husband of 22 years was innocent of the charges. She didn't deny he had briefly been an al-Qaeda member, gravitating to Osama bin Laden after having fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but she claims he broke with the terror group in about 1996 and possibly earlier to join Libyan Islamists fighting to overthrow Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

One of the leaders of the Libyan group he joined, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Sami Mostefa al-Saadi, says al-Liby “broke ties with al-Qaeda” earlier, placing the rupture in late 1994. But U.S. officials believe al-Liby maintained a role with al-Qaeda for much longer and claimed he was active after returning to Libya during the uprising that toppled Gaddafi.

According to a family contact, al-Liby spoke to his wife, three sons and daughter from the courthouse where he was arraigned on terrorist charges. “He reassured them he was physically okay,” says the source. Al-Liby suffers from several ailments including Hepatitis C, which he contracted while imprisoned for several years along with his family in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan.

He talked to his family using the cell phone of his public defender, David Patton, says the family contact.

U.S. officials say the 49-year-old al-Liby was transferred sooner than they had planned to New York because of his health problems, which could not be managed on board the USS San Antonio.

Justice Minister al-Mirghani said the family was taking steps to find a top criminal lawyer with a background in defending terrorist suspects and that the Libyan government would help them, if necessary, to identify suitable attorneys. The family says they have been inundated with phone calls from American lawyers wanting the case. In court during his arraignment yesterday, al-Liby said he couldn’t afford a lawyer.

Asked if the Libyan government would underwrite the legal bill for lawyers, al-Mirghani said Tripoli would provide “the same level of services we would for any Libyan,” but added “we need to check out about funding a defense.”

He added: “What is important is that he has a good lawyer and we will help to provide him with his rights.”

The Justice Minister remained adamant that the Libyan government had not given any prior approval for the U.S. snatching of al-Liby, contradicting a claim made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that tacit approval had been given.

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Al-Mirghani said the Libyan government had launched an investigation to find out how the U.S. operation was carried out. According to al-Liby’s wife, Libyans were also in the snatch squad. “One of the drivers didn’t wear a mask and looked Libyan,” she says. She says also that she heard Libyans shouting as her husband was snatched as she looked on from a window of their two-bedroom apartment. “They had thick Libyan accents,” she says.

The Libyan Justice says any Libyans found to have helped would be arrested. “This man was taken from Libya and it is not legal to kidnap people from Libya.”

But while critical of the U.S. action, al-Mirghani emphasized that the government of Prime Minister Ali Zidan is determined that Libyan-U.S. relations won’t be affected by the incident. “The bottom line of this conversation is that while what the Americans did was wrong we don’t want to go back to the old days and we hope this will not damage relations.”