Fears are mounting inside Libya about the reach of Islamist militants in the teetering state, and about possible retaliation for the stealth U.S. Special Forces capture this weekend of al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Liby in Tripoli—an operation that the country’s beleaguered prime minister is now protesting and calling a kidnapping.
U.S. officials say they had Libyan government approval for the raid, which was executed smoothly by members of an elite Delta Force team at dawn on Saturday. But Libyan authorities scrambled Monday to deny that assertion, and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is now describing al-Liby’s disappearance as an abduction and demanding an explanation for a breach of national sovereignty.
Al-Liby “is currently lawfully detained by the U.S. military in a secure location outside of Libya,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little on Sunday.
Early media reports suggested that the U.S. operation may have been related to a firefight that erupted over the weekend near Bani Walid, about an hour from Tripoli. The skirmish, which left 16 Libyan soldiers dead, took place at around the same time al-Liby was apprehended by U.S. Special Forces. But Libyan security sources say the incident wasn’t connected with the U.S. military action and involved an ambush by drug traffickers.
The capture of al-Liby, who is alleged to have been one of the masterminds behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, marked the end of a 13-year American manhunt and prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to declare that the U.S. would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
Speaking from an Asian summit in Indonesia, Kerry told reporters that al Qaeda operatives “can run but they can’t hide.”
But while they are running, they can do a lot of damage—and this is now at the root of Tripoli’s growing alarm.
Libyan government insiders say Zeidan’s denials are disingenuous but that he fears a violent backlash from homegrown jihadists and foreign al Qaeda operatives who have flocked to Libya in recent months—an unintended consequence of the French attempt to quash a radical Muslim insurgency in nearby Mali, which forced al Qaeda in the Maghreb to move north earlier this year.
Islamist militants have already demonstrated their reach in Libya with the razing of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a year ago, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens—and, more recently, with the bombing of the French Embassy in Tripoli, as well as attacks on other diplomatic missions.
After al-Liby’s capture, Islamists took to social media forums to denounce the U.S. action, portraying Zeidan 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 Zeidan. “Whether they were informed or not, in either case this is a catastrophe for the authorities and the sovereignty of the state,” remarked Libyan analyst Issam al-Zubeir on his Facebook page.
With a fledgling national army that is outgunned and outmanned by militias and other armed groups, Zeidan’s position is tenuous and the central government’s writ doesn’t run far. Having captured an alleged al Qaeda operative of al-Liby’s standing will in some ways help: Libyan government sources say they believe he was operational in Libya but more in the role of a counselor to other jihadis.
Zeidan is playing a high-stakes game, according to Libyan intelligence official, Rami El Obeidi. He believes the Libyan Prime Minister gave the green light for the stealth raid in return for greater U.S. and Western security assistance to stabilize the country. “Zeidan has no choice but to deny knowledge or involvement,” said Obeidi.
In some ways, Zeidan is in a race against time. Last month, he appealed to Western powers to help restore security and aid him in his efforts to arrest Libya’s slide into lawlessness and political chaos. At an investment conference in London he said: “If the international community does not help in the collection of arms and ammunition, if we don’t get help in forming the army and the police, things are going to take very long.”
One of the items on Zeidan’s wish list is helping quashing a two-month-long oil blockade of oilfields and ports by armed groups and federalists in eastern Libya. The blockade is costing Libya more than a hundred million dollars a day. What form that assistance may take isn’t clear but Obeidi says the oil blockade is sapping the strength of an already weak government.
In an interview earlier this year with The Daily Beast, Libyan lawmaker Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid, then chairman of the national security committee in the General National Congress, Libya’s parliament, warned against the U.S. putting boots on the ground in Libya. “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.”
Obeidi and other government insiders said the raid would also have needed the secret backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are in uneasy alliance with Zeidan and underpin his fragile government. “I think this is also a precondition from the Americans in order to assist Zeidan and the Muslim Brotherhood in tackling the oil blockade in the east as this is now a real danger to the authorities in Tripoli,” Obeidi said. For the past week, the Muslim Brotherhood, who also see jihadists as a menace, has stopped publicly sniping at Zeidan.
In an official statement the Libyan government said it has asked Washington for an explanation for the capture of the Libyan-born al-Liby. “The Libyan government has been following the reports of the kidnap of one of the Libyan citizens wanted by the authorities in the United States,” the government statement said. “As soon as it heard the reports, the Libyan government contacted the U.S. authorities to demand an explanation.”
The 49-year-old al-Liby, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, has been on the FBI’s most wanted list since 2000 when federal prosecutors indicted him for involvement in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings that left more than 200 people dead. It isn’t clear when he returned to Libya following stints in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Kenya, Britain and Iran, where he fled after the fall of the Taliban. But several foreign and Libyan intelligence sources say he was in Libya during the uprising against Col. Muammar Gaddafi. One of his sons was killed fighting on the side of the rebellion.
Relatives and neighbors say al-Liby was seized in Tripoli as he returned home from attending dawn prayers shortly after 6 a.m. on Saturday. Three vehicles blocked his car as he was parking. The widows were smashed and his gun was seized, his brother, Nabih, told the Associated Press. Al-Liby’s wife told Libyan reporters that the abductors were foreign-looking “commandos.” His son, Abdullah, claims that some of the abductors were Libyan.
The Delta raid may help the Obama administration placate U.S. lawmakers who have expressed anger at the failure to bring to justice those behind the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Several of the ringleaders have been indicted in absentia in a New York court, and U.S. officials say evidence of their involvement in the attack has been shared with Libyan authorities. But so far, the Libyans have made no moves to apprehend the indicted suspects—an inaction that prompted Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to argue the U.S. should mount a military action to seize the suspected ringleaders, including Salafist militia leader Ahmed Khattala.
In the wake of the seizing of al-Liby, though, that may prove a greater challenge, according to a U.S. intelligence source. “After what happened this weekend, those guys will be taking even greater precautions and changing locations.” There were reports Sunday night of a U.S. drone over-flying Benghazi, possibly being used to see if any consulate suspects are on the move.