Tripoli denies it had knowledge of US operation to take al-Libi
American media reports quote officials saying Libyan government was involved in the snatch operation of al-Qaeda operative
Senior al-Qaeda figure Anas al-Liby was indicted by the US for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa – one of which was the Nairobi building (above). Photograph: Antony Njuguna/Reuters
It was something of an open secret in certain Tripoli circles that Abu Anas al-Libi, the man wanted by the US in relation to the 1998 bombings of American embassies in east Africa, was living in Libya’s capital.
After more than three decades of militant life in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Kenya, Britain and Iran, the 49-year-old al-Qaeda operative had returned to settle in his homeland following the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gadafy. One of his sons had been killed fighting as Tripoli fell to rebel forces that August.
Last year sources close to his family told The Irish Times that al-Libi was frail due to serious health problems. He had told friends and associates that he wanted to live out his remaining years in the city of his birth.
Al-Libi tended to keep a low profile in Tripoli but in recent months had begun appearing more openly on its streets. He may have felt protected by the fact that there is no extradition treaty between Libya and the United States.
Al-Libi’s plans came to an abrupt end just after dawn on Saturday when armed men surrounded him as he returned home after prayers at the local mosque. Within hours, word trickled out that he had disappeared and his family was unable to contact him.
Rumours swirled in Tripoli: had al-Libi been captured in a US operation? The Libyan government appeared unaware. A high-level official, whose remit includes security issues, contacted by The Irish Times that afternoon had not heard about the disappearance, let alone the growing speculation that al-Libi had been taken by US forces.
The Pentagon later confirmed that al-Libi was in US custody, and American media reports quoted officials saying the Libyan government was involved in the snatch operation.
The capture of al-Libi put the Libyan government, already faltering because of its failure to fully impose its authority amid deteriorating security, in a bind. If it admitted to some knowledge of or role in the US operation it would invite the possibility of revenge attacks by al-Libi’s sympathisers. Claiming it had been kept completely in the dark would draw accusations that Libya’s sovereignty was violated and would make the government look even weaker than it already appeared.
In a statement yesterday, Tripoli denied knowledge of the capture and said it had demanded an explanation from Washington over what it described as the “kidnapping” of one of its citizens.
$5 million reward
The FBI’s page on al-Libi, which offered a $5 million reward for information leading directly to his arrest, says he is accused in a “conspiracy to kill United States nationals, to murder, to destroy buildings and property of the United States, and to destroy the national defense utilities of the United States”.
Born Nazih Abdul-Hamid al-Ruqai, al-Libi was one of several Libyans to join the nascent al-Qaeda following the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He developed a reputation for being one of its most savvy operatives, and was valued for his expertise in computers.
Despite concerns that he may have been trying to establish an al-Qaeda network in post-Gadafy Libya, no evidence has emerged linking him to terrorist activity following his return to the country.
Al-Libi remained something of a hero within Libya’s radical milieu. A Facebook page protesting his capture, titled “We are all [al-Libi]”, had gathered more than 2,000 followers last night. “The capture of Abu Anas in Libya will cost the state. And when it does, do not blame us for being terrorists,” one person wrote. “Every intelligence [service] in the world operates in Libya, except for Libyan intelligence,” complained another.