Libyans consider US raid in Tripoli one step too far

Libyans appreciate the US for its support of the 2011 revolution, but resent unilateral actions like Saturday's raid on an Al Qaeda target in Tripoli.

A US embassy official secures the area around the embassy building after a powerful bomb blast in Nairobi on August 7, 1998. Senior al Qaeda figure Anas al-Liby, indicted by the United States for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa, was captured in Libya by a US team and is in American custody, US officials said on Saturday.

Nazih al-Ruqai was returning home from prayer in Tripoli early yesterday morning when he was grabbed by armed men, bundled into a car, and driven off into US custody.

For the US, Mr. Ruqai’s capture ended a long search. Better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Liby, he is an alleged senior Al Qaeda member and is accused by the US of helping plan devastating bombings of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998.

But the implications of yesterday’s raid go further. It highlights broader fears that militants from Al Qaeda or at least sympathetic to the group are getting a foothold amid the shaky security and weak governance of post-Qaddafi Libya.

For Libyans, it also poses awkward questions about US involvement in their country. Many appreciate American support for their 2011 revolution, as well as the efforts of former ambassador Christopher Stevens to reach out to ordinary people. But for some, American boots on Libyan soil is a step too far.

Most Libyans will understand why US authorities seized a chance to apprehend Mr. Liby, says Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan affairs think tank in Tripoli. “But not everyone will be happy with the loss of sovereignty.”

The US says that Liby’s capture was lawful, but it’s unclear whether Libyan leaders knew that it would take place. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has called the raid a “kidnapping” and demanded an explanation, reports Reuters.

Thriving on instability

Just two years ago, many Libyans welcomed a NATO bombing campaign – in which the US featured heavily – to help overthrow Muammer Qaddafi. His regime collapsed in August 2011, and he was killed by militiamen two months later.

However, interim leaders have struggled to keep order. Borders are porous, weapons proliferate, and rowdy militias often cause trouble with impunity. Meanwhile, a new constitution is overdue, and state spending gets snagged by red tape. Violence has severely dented this year’s oil output.

All of that is bad news for most ordinary Libyans. But for militants both homegrown and foreign, instability is a boon.

“Consider that Libya has no functioning intelligence service,” says Mr. El Gomati. “For much of the extremist community, that’s a green light.”

It’s not clear what, if anything, Liby may have been up to in Libya, his native country. But his presence in the capital underscores a wider – if still marginal – emergence of religious extremism and militancy.

Both of those made headlines last year with attacks on Sufi mosques by extremists who consider Sufi mysticism to be heretical. In September 2012, a mob that reportedly included Islamist militants attacked a US consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including Amb. Stevens.

Last January, carloads of militants burst into a natural gas plant at In Amenas, Algeria, and rounded up foreign workers as hostages for a standoff that ended with an Algerian army assault and left 40 hostages dead.

The attack was planned from northern Mali by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for years a senior commander in Al Qaeda’s North African franchise, says a report on the attack by Statoil, a Norwegian oil firm working at In Amenas. But it appears to have been launched from over the nearby Libyan border.

Among the alleged attackers was a Tunisian named Laroussi Derbali, whose path seems to show how Libya is for some a crossroads of militancy. He went there in 2010 to seek work, but last year broke contact with his family, said his brother, Said, in an interview last March. The next the family heard of Laroussi was his arrest at In Amenas.

Weak government, weak enforcement

The US has been trying to catch Liby for years. He was indicted in 2000 in connection with the Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam bombings, which killed more than 200 people. The FBI offered a $5 million reward for him.

Early yesterday, three carloads of gunmen cornered Liby as he parked his car after attending dawn prayer at a Tripoli mosque, The Associated Press reports, citing Liby’s brother, Nabih. The gunmen smashed Liby’s car window, snatched the gun he was carrying, and drove off with him.

Later yesterday, US authorities said that Liby was held in American custody outside Libya. For some Libyans, Liby’s alleged career as an international terrorist is justification enough for the US raid.

“It’s a move against global terrorism,” says Salah Engab, a medical student an writer in Tripoli. “We shouldn’t be worrying about one country versus another. We should be working together.”

An activist for the rights of Libya’s Amazigh, or Berber, minority and a vocal proponent of secularism and religious moderation, Mr. Engab says he has been harassed and threatened by hardliners for his views.

Fahed Bakoush, a young activist in Benghazi, also wants more done to resist extremism. Last year he was among the first people to discover Stevens, the former ambassador, unconscious in the US consulate and helped organize rallies to condemn violence. Still, he says yesterday’s raid went too far.

“It’s like someone breaking into your house,” he says. “We had a revolution to build a strong, free Libya.”

He wants Libyan authorities to fight criminality “with an iron hand,” he says. But he concedes that for now, they can do little. The state’s weakness was underscored yesterday when gunmen opened fire on a military checkpoint outside Tripoli, killing 15 soldiers.

“What the raid also did was to show that the Libyan state cannot maintain security,” he says.

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