They came in the dead of night in pick-up-trucks and battered cars, surprising a police checkpoint and moving quickly in a precise military-style configuration befitting fighters who helped to bring down Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule.
Their target this time wasn’t a despot but the elected leader of post-Gaddafi Libya, Prime Minister Ali Zidan, whose brief abduction on Thursday marked yet another low for a country struggling to establish order and stricken by a spate of kidnappings and assassinations over the past year—including the razing of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the death of American ambassador Christopher Stevens. On Friday, a day after the Prime Minister’s abduction, a car bomb exploded outside of the Swedish consulate in Benghazi, damaging the building and nearby houses.
The militiamen, angry over a U.S. Special Forces team seizing of suspected al-Qaeda bigwig Abu Anas al-Liby in Tripoli seven days ago, used pick-up trucks equipped with anti-aircraft guns to block entrances to the luxury Corinthia Hotel in downtown Tripoli where Zidan resides in a suite on the 22nd floor.
Witnesses, including guards assigned to the hotel by the Interior Ministry, say about 400 gunmen were involved in the abduction and that the leaders marched into the cavernous, marble-floored lobby demanding to know from alarmed nighttime staff the whereabouts of the Prime Minister. A receptionist was hauled off when he refused to say. The gunmen brandished a warrant for Zidan’s arrest on national security and corruption charges, signed by the Prosecutor General, says Khalil Yahia, the head of the government security team at the Corinthia, which also houses several foreign missions.
“I was shocked,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘How could they have an arrest warrant for the Prime Minister?’” The militiamen grabbed most of the hotel’s surveillance equipment and tapes. “There was no gunfire—we only had about half-a-dozen guards on duty. There wasn’t anything we could do. I didn’t call for reinforcements, because these people—the ones waving the warrant—would have been the people detailed to be the reinforcements.”
For half-an-hour, from 2:50 to 3:20am, the gunmen searched the huge 26-floor hotel, waking up startled guests, many of whom refused to open their doors, before discovering their target and roughing up two guards who tried to block them from storming into Zidan’s suite.
Yahia, a bearded 28-year-old who fought in the uprising and was raised just yards from the hotel in the old souk, saysthose directly involved in the kidnapping were from two different units that report to the Interior Ministry, the Counter-Crime Agency and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Operations Room. The units are composed of fighters from different militias, including from Misrata and Zawiya, towns that were hardline strongholds in the uprising against Gaddafi, and were set up last June by the president of Libya’s parliament, Nuri Abu Sahmain, who now insists he had no knowledge of the abduction.
Militiamen from Misrata and Zawiya were at the forefront in May of a blockade of government ministries—an action that forced through sweeping legislation banning former Gaddafi loyalists from public office, whether they supported the uprising or not.
Abdel-Moneim al-Hour, an official with the Counter-Crime Agency, confirmed publicly that Zidan has been arrested on accusations of harming state security. He said on Libyan television that the arrest also stemmed from a fraud inquiry launched in June. But a spokesman for the Tripoli Revolutionaries Operations Room claimed none of its fighters were involved.
Prosecutors now insist that the warrant for Zidan was forged and that the gunmen had no authority to arrest the Prime Minister. Regardless of whether the six-hour-long abduction of the Prime Minister was illegal or a coup attempt involving some top lawmakers, it underlines the weakness of a central government that has been held hostage by powerful revolutionary militias and buffeted by political factions jostling for power. Often the militias and the political factions are in cohorts, making life for Zidan even harder.
But for the quick action of some militiamen from the Tripoli districts of Souq Jomaa and Tajoura, alongside fighters from another Interior Ministry unit who stormed the house in the capital where Zidan was stashed, Libya may have been tipped into another bloody civil war this week.
After Zidan had been set free, he thanked his rescuers for their intervention in a short press conference on Thursday night. But he provided few details on his ordeal and avoided apportioning blame. “We hope this matter will be treated with wisdom and rationality, far from tension,” he said. “There are many things that need dealing with.”
Others are less sanguine and have called for the arrest of the plotters—however high their rank.
Zidan’s position may harden if he starts feeling more secure, according to one his aides. Prosecutors say one of the leaders of the Counter-Crime Agency, Abdelmonem Al-Said, is already under investigation by the Attorney General for his role in the kidnapping of the Prime Minister.
And they say that while the American capture of al-Liby was the final trigger for the abduction, the kidnapping was part of a larger plot that amounted to a coup attempt and was hatched a couple of days before the al-Qaeda suspect was seized. Angered by Zidan’s recent requests for Western assistance to help build a professional national army, the plotters decided to unseat him, they say.
Another Counter-Crime Agency leader, AbdulkarimBelazi, acknowledged the operation to nab Zidan had been partially organized before al-Liby’s capture. He also insisted the Congress President, Abu Sahmain, was fully aware of the plan, knew of the arrest warrant and approved it.
Demands for the plotters to be arrested are growing. Leaders of the powerful Zintan militia, another key town in the ousting of Gaddafi, have called for all involved to be arrested and punished. Zintan’s Local Council has pointed the finger of blame at Abu Sahmain, criticizing him for establishing the two units who carried out the abduction.
Part of the problem in post-Gaddafi Libya is that there are too many groups who feel they have the legitimacy to protect the state and defend the revolution. One longtime Libya watcher says the “Zidan kidnapping is part of an ongoing trend of Islamist and other militias being willing to use force to ‘encourage’ political change. Everyone has weapons and to a certain extent, everyone is using them to make demands. But Islamist-laigned thuwars [warriors] are definitely willing to take matters into their own hands when they feel political matters are not going their way.”
By the end of his dramatic day, Zidan, without his trademark pebble eye-glasses— apparently lost or damaged during the abduction—was sitting in the plush executive lounge on Corinthia’s 15th floor, blinking at his trusted advisers and assuring them he was fine and that what had happened was all part of the job. Tired, he waved off Daily Beast requests for an interview. Three guards paced nearby nervously fingering their automatic guns, but aside from them, post-abduction security arrangements seemed as lax as they were earlier in the day.