Why Now? U.S. Nabs Top Al-Qaeda Suspect Known for Years
Tue, October 8, 2013
The USS San Antonio
This past weekend, U.S. Delta forces converged on a man parking his car in broad daylight in the middle of Tripoli, Libya and nabbed a senior al-Qaeda operative who went by the nom du guerre Abu Anas al-Libi. Al-Libi was wanted by the United States for his role in the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings.
He is alleged to have conducted pre-attack casing and surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya prior to the August 7, 1998 suicide truck bombing there that killed more than 200 people and injured another 5,000. It is likely that al-Libi will be brought to New York City, where he is under indictment, to stand trial.
Al-Libi’s involvement with Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’eda (AQ) goes back much further than 1998, however, and his command position within the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group probably brought him into contact with former U.S. Liaison to the Libyan Opposition Christopher Stevens during the 2011 Libyan revolution.
Why al-Libi hadn’t been put away much earlier by either the U.S. or our British allies takes this story deep into international intrigue and a long history of Western intelligence associations with known al-Qa’eda jihadis.
Born and raised in Tripoli, al-Libi arrived in Afghanistan near the end of the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviets. Afterwards, when Libyan jihadist veterans of that war—such as Abdelhakim Belhadj—returned to Libya in 1990, they formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) to fight against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddaffi.
According to the 2012 Kronos report, “A View to Extremist Currents in Libya,” al-Libi “likely is the brother of LIFG Shura Council member, later al-Qa’ida member Abu Laith al-Libi (killed in 2008).”
Although it is unclear whether al-Libi also returned directly to Libya after the end of the Afghan war, at some point then or later, he, his brother, and Belhadj certainly became well-known to one another.
The next stage of al-Libi’s life -- where he became an al-Qaeda operative -- took place in Sudan. Osama bin Laden moved to Sudan in 1991, where he and Ayman al-Zawahiri (al-Qaeda’s current leader) found safehaven with the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Omar al-Bashir and his political ally, Hassan al-Turabi. Al-Libi joined them there by 1992 or 1993, along with jihadis from all over the Muslim world.
In addition to Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyeh, there were the Iranians (from then President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Reza’i and intelligence chief Ali Fallahian), Palestinians and an Egyptian-American double-agent named Ali Muhammad.
Muhammad, later convicted for his role in the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing, was a former Egyptian army officer who moved to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, enlisted in the U.S. Army and became an instructor at Ft. Bragg. He also was an expert in explosives, security and surveillance who worked directly for Osama bin Laden, training his fellow jihadis.
Al-Libi may have been one of Muhammad’s trainees, but in any case, when bin Laden decided to focus on Nairobi, Kenya as a place to retaliate against the U.S. for its involvement in Somalia, he sent Muhammad, al-Libi and others to Nairobi to scout out possible targets.
According to al-Libi’s criminal indictment in the Southern District of New York Federal Court, he and Muhammad “conducted visual and photographic surveillance of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya,” and then later reviewed that information with the al-Qaeda team preparing for the attack. That seems to have been the extent of al-Libi’s involvement in the Nairobi Embassy bombing of August 1998, because by 1995, he’d moved on to other plots and become involved in a failed AQ/Sudanese assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
On Qaddafi’s radar in Libya as well (even though bin Laden had refrained from attacks there—but not in next-door Algeria), things were getting hot for al-Libi in Sudan, with pressure coming from both Egypt and Libya.
That’s when the British stepped in and offered al-Libi political asylum in Britain. There was a quid pro quo, however, and it is reported that MI6 recruited al-Libi’s assistance for a failed 1996 plot to kill Qaddafi. Al-Libi was allowed to remain in the UK, where he became a student and lived until 2000 in Manchester, a known base for the LIFG, which had been crushed in Libya by 1998, with its key commanders fleeing abroad.
Belhadj had gone back to Afghanistan, where he is said to have formed “close relationships” with AQ leadership as well as Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But al-Libi himself lived freely in the UK from 1995-2000, despite his known history of association with bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and other AQ leaders, plus involvement in two plots to assassinate national leaders, one of them actually directed by MI6.
UK support also extended to asylum for the LIFG top commander, Abu Abdullah As-Sadeq, as well as other LIFG fighters, plus allowing the LIFG (al-Jama'a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah in Arabic) to publish an Arabic language newspaper called al-Wasat in London during the mid-1990s.
For al-Libi, who may have joined the LIFG while in the UK, there was the unpleasantness of a brief 1999 arrest by Scotland Yard on terrorism suspicions, but he was quickly released for “lack of evidence.” Al-Libi, a computer expert, had taken care to wipe his hard-drive clean.
At the time, John O’Neill, then head of the FBI’s bin Laden unit, had rushed to Manchester upon learning al-Libi was there and going to be arrested in 1999. But, oddly, there does not seem to be any record of a formal U.S. extradition request for al-Libi—who then stayed on in the UK another whole year.
Even more inexplicably, it wasn’t until after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., that al-Libi was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List with a $25 million reward (later lowered to $5 million) for information leading to his arrest.
By 2000, though, al-Libi was on the run again, skipping out of the UK one step ahead of the authorities, who raided his Manchester flat and found a 180-page AQ terror training manual, possibly written by Ali Muhammad.
Al-Libi made his way to Afghanistan, where he reconnected with bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and the rest of his pre-9/11 AQ comrades, and then was reported captured in 2002 by U.S. forces. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported, without much corroboration, that al-Libi was held for an unspecified number of years in secret CIA prisons. He also was variously reported to have spent some time in Iran, along with other senior AQ figures, following the 9/11 attacks.
During this time, the LIFG once again had drawn close to AQ, until it was formally accepted into the group in 2007, as AQ moved to establish a foothold inside Libya. Despite the announcement of the affiliation, hundreds of LIFG jihadis were being released from Qaddafi’s prisons in a 2008-2010 reconciliation program (in which, strangely, U.S. diplomat Christopher Stevens and other Tripoli Embassy officers took a puzzling interest).
Belhadj was among those released, as was Abu Sufian Ben Qumu, who had been in Sudan with bin Laden around the same time that al-Libi was there and later commanded the Ansar al-Shariah militia in Derna, Libya which was identified as the lead element in the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi.
In any case, according to CNN, before the end of 2010, al-Libi somehow made his way back to Libya, just in time for the February 17, 2011 outbreak of the revolution. In December 2010, Libyan authorities even provided the UN Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee a street address for him in downtown Tripoli.
The August 2012 Library of Congress study, “Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” suggests that al-Libi’s role in Libya was coordination between Ayman al-Zawahiri and AQ Central and the Libyan militias.
By the time that U.S. career diplomat Christopher Stevens was named official U.S. Liaison to the Libyan rebels in mid-March 2011, AQ-LIFG fighters like al-Libi, Ben Qumu and Belhadj were leading the revolution against Qaddafi. Stevens’ job was to coordinate U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, logistical, military and weapons support to al-Qaeda jihadis such as these. The pending NYC Federal District Court indictment against al-Libi for the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing would just have to wait.
And wait it did … until a random day in early October 2013, when the U.S. government suddenly decided that it needed, urgently, to snatch an unsuspecting al-Libi off the street in Tripoli, where he had been living since the end of the Libyan revolution with his wife and four children.
Soon, Secretary of State Kerry was crowing about how terrorists “can run but they can’t hide” – but the thing was, al-Libi hadn’t been running or hiding for a long time. The U.S. knew perfectly well where he was for at least the prior two years — and didn’t seem to care.
Just to recap: ?
- Al-Libi lived openly in the UK from 1995-2000, with the permission of the British government and no extradition request from the U.S., which knew he was there.
- Al-Libi may have been in CIA custody from 2002 until an unknown date.
- Al-Libi returned to live in Tripoli, Libya in December 2010, with his home address published by the UN Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee.
- Al-Libi was likely a close working partner of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Liaison to the Libyan al-Qaeda rebels in 2011.
- Al-Libi continued to live at the published address of his Tripoli home from 2011-2013.
Al-Libi’s seizure now makes as little sense as did the apparent U.S. and UK indifference to his outstanding Nairobi indictment and his jihadist credentials for all the years that preceded it. (Despite the close relationship among former LIFG jihadis like al-Libi and Abu Sufian ben Qumu, until now, there has been no indication that al-Libi was involved in 9/11 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans.)
Still, al-Libi undoubtedly would be able to answer a lot of questions about events leading up to that assault, as well as questions about those individuals and militias involved in its planning and execution. Reportedly, an FBI interrogation team is headed out to the USS San Antonio in the Mediterranean Sea (where al-Libi is being held) and plans to ask al-Libi about AQ operations in Libya.
Funny: If that’s what they’re after, seems they could have just read the cables Chris Stevens had been sending back for the last several years. “Die Hard in Derna” from June 2008 would have been a good one to start with.
Clare Lopez is a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on the Middle East, national defense and counterterrorism. Lopez served for 20 years as an operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).