US nabbed target in Libya raid, but has it sowed bigger problems?

The US suspects Abu Anas al-Liby of being behind 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But its raid may have weakened Libya's government and given militants a cause to rally around.

Mohammed el-Shaiky/AP
Dozens of supporters of the militant group, Ansar al-Sharia, burn an American flag and shout anti-American slogans denouncing the US violation of Libya's sovereignty in the abduction of Abu Anas al-Liby, in the center of Benghazi, Libya, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.

Nazih al-Ruqai, better known by nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Liby, was on his way home from morning prayers at a nearby mosque when his black Hyundai Tucson was rammed by a white car as he pulled up outside his home in a Tripoli suburb. 

Men carrying handguns fitted with silencers piled out of two other white cars and a Mercedes minibus with blacked-out windows parked nearby. As the men surrounded his car, he cried out, alerting his family.

The attackers smashed Mr. Liby's driver window, opened the door, and dragged him out, pinning him over the hood. They shouted, "Get out!" and "Get down!" in Arabic. He may have been drugged, his family says, because his body was limp as he was bundled into the Mercedes minibus.

This is how the US capture of Liby went down after 15 years on the run from the US government, according to his son, who recounted the episode standing on a patch of broken glass next to the battered car his father was driving when he was captured. 

Since then, Liby has been transported aboard the USS San Antonio, to be questioned by the so-called High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a specialist team that was created in 2009 to question terrorists.

The US suspects Liby of being a member of Al Qaeda and accuses him of masterminding the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 224 people. 

However, his son Abdullah Nazih al-Ruqai insists that his father is innocent of the bombings and says that while his father was a jihadist who fought alongside the mujahadeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, his father was not close to Osama bin Laden and has never been involved in any terrorist bombings.

Mr. Ruqai also insists his father is terminally ill and that a doctor told his father he had only days to live before the capture. 

"All we can do now is pray that god protects him," says Ruqai, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet." 

The secretive US operation has sparked widespread indignation in Libya, where many see it as an illegal intrusion into domestic affairs. Islamist militant groups have been especially vocal in their criticism, and Libya’s weak government is struggling to minimize the destabilizing effects of the raid.

On Tuesday, Libya’s congress issued a statement demanding “the immediate surrender” of Liby and calling his abduction a "flagrant violation of national sovereignty." Prime Minister Ali Zeidan also put pressure on the US, saying Libyan citizens should be tried in their homeland. "Our relationship with the USA is important," he said. "We care about that, but we care too about our citizens, which is our duty."

After a meeting between Liby's father and brother and the justice minister on Monday, the ministry released a statement referring to the incident as a "kidnapping" and said that government agencies would be looking into concerns raised by the family. The show of support comes as the government scrambles to pacify extremist elements of Libyan society who have protested the secret US operation.

The militant group Ansar al-Sharia has been one of the most vocal critics, calling the operation to abduct Liby proof that "America is waging a war against Islam." It accused the US of "arresting whoever they want without accountability" and ignoring "its own corrupt laws when it comes to applying them to Muslims."

Bill Lawrence, an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a North Africa specialist, says that the operation is unlikely to damage US-Libya relations, but could be a game-changer for domestic politics.

"This could be a turning point for [Prime Minister] Zeidan, with the public assuming he either signed off [on the US capture] or was too weak or too disrespected to stop it," he says.

Amnesty International condemned the operation as well, reiterating the point that it could cause problems for the Libyan government. The operation “undermines Libya’s efforts to establish the rule of law at a time when the country is in need of international support to rebuild its institutions," it said in a statement.

Other critics say the US has increased the threat of jihadist attacks on foreigners, both within Libya’s borders and in neighboring countries.

In the wake of Liby's capture, a post on the Facebook page "Benghazi is protected by its people," which is tracked by the terror network monitoring agency SITE, ordered Libyans living in Tripoli to shut down all roads leading in and out of the city, kidnap all American citizens, and attack oil pipelines, ships, and planes.

“Because the state is unable to project any authority and there is no guarantor of law and order apart from different militias that operate throughout Libya, threats to retaliate against US citizens must be taken extremely seriously,” says Geoff Porter, managing director of North Africa Risk Consulting.

“Although the raid was in Libya, retaliatory sentiments will reverberate beyond Libya’s borders. Libyan jihadis are communicating and potentially coordinating their activities with jihadi groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, and possibly Algeria, which suggests that there are potential threats to US citizens and US companies in those countries as well," he says.

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