The Capture of Abu Anas al-Libi

On October 6th, the Department of Defense announced that U.S. forces had captured Abu Anas al-Libi, a senior member of the al Qaeda terrorist organization and a figure on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, in an early morning raid in Libya. Al-Libi’s capture represents not only an opportunity to prosecute a terrorist whom the United States has sought for over a decade but also a potential source of valuable intelligence about al Qaeda and other terrorist plans and activities.

Q1: Who is al-Libi, and what is he believed to have done?

A1: Al-Libi, a 49-year old Libyan whose given name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al- Ruqai, has a long history of involvement with Islamic militancy. Originally a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a violent Islamist movement that fought to oust Muammar Gaddafi, al-Libi appears to have become involved with al Qaeda in the early 1990s. He reportedly spent time in Sudan while al Qaeda – under the leadership of Osama bin Laden – was headquartered there. Al-Libi also allegedly lived for several years in Afghanistan before fleeing the country in late 2001. He appears to have spent much of the last decade in Iranian custody before returning home to Libya in the midst of the 2011 civil war.

While al-Libi is believed to have served as a computer expert for al Qaeda, he is wanted by the United States primarily for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for those attacks, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and which were that organization’s deadliest events until September 11, 2011. Al-Libi allegedly conducted extensive surveillance of the targets in Africa before the bombing, taking and developing the photographs that would allow al Qaeda to plan the attacks. As a result, in 2000, al-Libi was indicted by the Southern District of New York on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, murder, destruction of American buildings and government property, and destruction of national defense utilities of the United States.

Q2: How was he captured?

A2: Since his return to Libya in 2011, al-Libi has reportedly been living in relative openness with his family in an upscale neighborhood of Tripoli. As al-Libi parked outside his home after returning from morning prayers on October 5th, witnesses report seeing several unmarked vans pull alongside his vehicle. Reports note that as many as ten armed and masked men, described by al-Libi’s wife as “commandos,” surrounded al-Libi’s vehicle, took him into custody, and quickly departed. Such reports note that Delta Force, a highly skilled U.S. Army special operations unit conducted this raid, which apparently resulted in no reported casualties. According to the Pentagon, al-Libi is now being “lawfully detained by the U.S. military in a secure location outside Libya,” likely a U.S. Navy vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.

The degree to which the Libyan government was aware of or assisted in al-Libi’s capture remains unclear. While the government has publicly accused the United States of kidnapping one of its citizens, U.S. officials have suggested that at least some Libyan officials had been informed of and supported the raid. Further, witnesses report the presence of at least two Arabic-speaking Libyans on the team that performed the mission.

Q3: What are the implications of al-Libi’s capture?

A3: Administration officials have stated that al-Libi will eventually be brought to the United States to stand trial for his role in the 1998 Embassy bombings. Until then, intelligence officials will have an opportunity to interrogate him while he is outside of the United States. If he has maintained contact with senior al Qaeda leaders, al-Libi might provide useful intelligence on their whereabouts, plans, and activities. U.S. forces could then use this information to direct additional raids or strikes, further degrading al Qaeda and its leadership.

Also of interest to the United States is information that al-Libi might possess regarding militant groups within Libya itself. After the fall of Gaddafi, Libya’s interim government has had great difficulty in asserting its authority beyond a few select areas. Islamist militant groups have recently grown in strength and influence within Libya, presenting a threat not only to the Libyan government but, as demonstrated by the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, to U.S. interests as well. Given al-Libi’s history with the LIFG, many of whose former members remain active within Libyan militant movements, his capture could prove a boon for those seeking to counter the rise of violent militancy within Libya.

Rob Wise is a Research Assistant and Program Coordinator with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

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Rob Wise