U.S. forces seize Libyan militant, target Somali al-Shabab leader
The captured al-Qaida leader, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his alias, Anas al-Libi, had a $5 million bounty on his head and his capture ended a 15-year manhunt.
The New York Times
CAIRO — U.S. commandos carried out raids Saturday in two African countries in a flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects. Navy SEALs emerged before dawn from the Indian Ocean to attack a seaside villa in a Somali town known as a gathering point for militants, while U.S. troops assisted by FBI and CIA agents seized a suspected leader of al-Qaida in Libya.
In Tripoli, U.S. forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his alias, Anas al-Libi, had a $5 million bounty on his head and his capture ended a 15-year manhunt.
The Somalia raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, in response to the massacre by the militant Somali group al-Shabab at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The Navy SEAL team targeted a senior al-Shabab leader in the town of Barawe and exchanged gunfire with militants in a predawn firefight.
The unidentified al-Shabab leader is believed to have been killed in the firefight, but the SEAL team was forced to withdraw before that could be confirmed, a senior U.S. security official said.
Officials said the timing of the two raids was coincidental. But they illustrated the importance of counterterrorism operations in North Africa, where the breakdown of order in Libya since the ouster of the Moammar Gadhafi government in 2011 and the persistence of al-Shabab in Somalia have helped spread violence and instability across the region.
The military may have pursued both targets simultaneously to avoid the possibility that news of one raid might spook into hiding the target of the other, or that a public backlash in one country might rattle the governments of the other into withdrawing its quiet cooperation. It was unclear if the U.S. was planning other raids.
At a time President Obama’s popularity is flagging under the weight of his standoff with congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for his reversal in Syria, the simultaneous attacks are bound to fuel accusations that the administration was eager for a showy victory.
Al-Libi, 49, the Libyan al-Qaida leader, was the bigger prize, and officials said late Saturday that he was alive in U.S. custody. A U.S. official said he appeared to have been taken peacefully and “he is no longer in Libya.”
His brother Nabih said al-Libi was parking outside his house early Saturday after dawn prayers when a convoy of three vehicles encircled his car. Armed gunmen smashed the car’s window and seized al-Libi’s gun before grabbing him and taking him away. The brother said al-Libi’s wife saw the kidnapping from her window and described the abductors as foreign-looking armed “commandos.”
His capture was the latest blow to what remains of the original al-Qaida organization after a 12-year U.S. campaign to capture or kills its leadership, including the killing two years ago of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.
Al-Libi is not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the al-Qaida organization to like-minded militants in his native Libya.
A senior U.S. official said the Libyan government was involved in the operation. An assistant to the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government said the government was unaware of any operation.
U.S. officials say they will want to question al-Libi for several weeks. But they did not dispute that, with an indictment pending against him in New York, that was most likely his ultimate destination.
The raid in Somalia that targeted a leader of al-Shabab was the most significant raid by U.S. troops in that lawless country since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaida mastermind, near the same town four years ago. Barawe, the small port town south of Mogadishu, is known as a gathering place for al-Shabab’s foreign fighters.
The military assault was “prompted by” the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi two weeks ago, a senior government official said. More than 60 people were killed when al-Shabab militants overran the mall.
Witnesses in Barawe described a firefight lasting more than an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the raid, saying: “The attack was carried out by the American forces and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.”
A spokesman for al-Shabab said one of its fighters had been killed but the group had beaten back the assault. U.S. officials initially reported that they had seized the al-Shabab leader, but later backed off that account.
One U.S. official said it was still unclear if any Americans were involved in the Westgate siege, though many Kenyan officials said they now believed there were only four attackers, far fewer than the 10 to 15 the government had previously reported. All were killed, the Kenyan military says.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.