By Tony G. Gabriel
and Esam Mohamed
A suspected Libyan al-Qaida figure nabbed by U.S. special forces in a dramatic operation in Tripoli was living freely in his homeland for the past two years, after a trajectory that took him to Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran, where he had been detained for years, his family said Sunday. The Libyan government bristled at the raid, asking Washington to explain the “kidnapping.”
The swift Delta Force operation in the streets of the Libyan capital that seized the militant known as Abu Anas al-Libi was one of two assaults Saturday that showed an American determination to move directly against terror suspects — even in two nations mired in chaos where the United States has suffered deadly humiliations in the past.
Hours before the Libya raid, a Navy SEAL team swam ashore in the East African nation of Somalia and engaged in a fierce firefight, though it did not capture its target, a leading militant in the al-Qaida-linked group that carried out the recent Kenyan mall siege.
“We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday at an economic summit in Indonesia. “Members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.”
Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Libi, was accused by the United States of involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed more than 220 people. He has been on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list since it was introduced shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, with a $5 million bounty on his head.
U.S. officials depicted his capture as a significant blow against al-Qaida, which has lost a string of key figures, including leader Osama bin Laden, killed in a 2011 raid in Pakistan.
It was unclear, however, whether al-Libi, 49, had a major role in the terror organization — his alleged role in the 1998 attack was to scout one of the targeted embassies — and there was no immediate word that he had been involved in militant activities in Libya. His family and former associates denied he was ever a member of al-Qaida and said he had not been engaged in any activities since coming home in 2011.
But the raid signaled a U.S. readiness to take action against militants in Libya, where al-Qaida and other armed Islamic groups have gained an increasingly powerful foothold since the 2011 ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi and have set up ties with a belt of radical groups across North Africa and Egypt.
Libya’s central government remains weak, and armed militias — many of them made up of Islamic militants — hold sway in many places around the country, including in parts of the capital. Amid the turmoil, Libyan authorities have been unable to move against militants, including those behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.