Image: Libyans burn an American flag in protest of al-Libi’s “kidnapping”
On October 5th 2013, in a joint operation between the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, the United States captured and extracted Nazih Abdul-Gamed al-Ruqai, known popularly as Abu Anas al-Libi (not to be confused with the late Abu Yaya al-Libi).
Abu Anas was a high-priority target, implicated in the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings, and working as one of al-Qaeda’s most significant computer and intelligence specialists, with close ties to al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL).
The international community has long been aware that Abu Anas was residing in Tripoli. In December of 2010, two months before the uprising in Benghazi, the Gaddhafi regime informed the U.N. that Abu Anas had returned to Libya and asked the international community for assistance in capturing him. Moammar Gaddhafi had long acted as a bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and had been one of their primary targets.
Shortly after Abu Anas’ arrival, the uprising began in Benghazi, an area known to be an al-Qaeda stronghold: according to the CTC, Libya provided the most fighters per capita to the insurgency in Iraq, by a longshot—most of these from Eastern Libya a la Benghazi. This area had also long been a trouble-zone for the regime. And yet, rather than purging Abu Anas and breaking up his al-Qaeda cells in Libya first, the United States prioritized the destruction of the Gaddhafi regime—a government that had been cooperating with America and the international community on containing terrorism and WMDs since normalizing relations under the Bush Administration.
Then, despite having already overstepped UNSCR 1973, the United States and its allies refused to dedicate sufficient resources and manpower to establish order in the aftermath and render the transitional government viable–lest the Obama Administration more obviously break its pledge that the mission would be quick and painless with “no boots on the ground.” After all, the President faced re-election the following year.
NATO promptly declared the Libya campaign to be the most effective and efficient intervention in the organization’s history, an evaluation the Obama Administration was quick to parrot, but one which was no less premature and ill-fated than President’s Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.
As a result of the U.S. led (from behind) “strategy” in Libya, Abu Anas was given the autonomy and resources to promote and enforce al-Qaeda’s ideology across Libya and the broader Maghreb, acting as the primary liaison between AQSL and AQIM affiliated groups in Libya, and primary network-builder among these militias. These efforts have been extraordinarily successful.
There is a strange irony. Abu Anas likely played a big role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania—and although they knew where he was for the last three years, the United States left him alone all this time, and subsequently turned Libya into a giant ungoverned zone. The terror networks he helped construct in the aftermath would ultimately execute another attack on a U.S. Embassy, this time in Benghazi, resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. In a further irony, even as this attack was taking place, CIA operatives were on the ground, actively funneling weapons from militants in Libya to others in Syria. Some lessons America never seems to learn.
And yet, as terrible as it was for the U.S. to allow Abu Anas to remain in Tripoli these last three years, the U.S. action to finally remove him may be equally disruptive for Libya’s fledgling government.
According to the U.S., the operation was carried out with the knowledge and “tacit approval” of the Libyan government. However, Libyan security forces, the Prime Minister, and the Parliament have all denied having any advance awareness of America’s plans, and are calling for al-Libi’s immediate return.
In fact, had they been informed ahead of time, the Libyan government would have likely objected to plans to extract Abu Anas, just as they have been defying repeated requests by the U.N. and human rights groups to extradite former agents of the Gaddhafi regime for trial in the ICC. In fact, less than a month ago the Libyan government explicitly forbade the FBI from arresting those suspected of carrying out the Benghazi attack. It is implausible that they magically changed their mind in the intervening weeks. It is a point of national pride that Libyans be accountable to the Libyan people, in Libyan courts, for their crimes. So for the U.S. to violate Libyan sovereignty with ground forces in order to abduct a Libyan citizen without due process, to be “lawfully detained” outside the country, indefinitely, until he is made to stand trial in America—this is a big blow to the government in Tripoli, which is already widely perceived as feckless and ineffectual, a puppet for Western interests.
At the moment, the country stands on the verge of disintegrating into three emirates: Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica. The “official” government of Libya holds significant sway only over the first of these, and the brazen U.S. actions undermine the extent to which even that region is under control—the raid actually took place in the capital, and during broad daylight. This follows closely on the heels of a recent attack on the Russian Embassy in Tripoli, part of a growing trend of violence and disorder in the capital.
It is extremely plausible that Tripoli, in an attempt to salvage its credibility, will respond to this incursion with inflammatory rhetoric against the United States, possibly even taking symbolic actions against American interests in Libya—in much the same way Pakistan responded to the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. And of course, there is a further threat of more visceral blowback against both the Libyan government and American assets in the region as retaliation for the operation. The attack on Benghazi may have, itself, been a retaliatory strike for previous secret U.S. raids conducted in Libya under John Brennan. In anticipation of this possibility, the Pentagon has deployed hundreds of Marines for rapid deployment into the Libyan theater, if needed.
The abduction of Abu Anas coincided with another U.S. special-ops mission in Somalia targeting al-Shabbab militants; apparently, the White House is hoping to expand these campaigns while reducing reliance on drone strikes. In fact, despite the condemnation of the Tripoli operation, there are indications that the U.S. may be planning another raid in Libya to seize Ahmed Abu Khattala—accused of playing a significant role in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.
The White House may feel it can strike with impunity in countries like Somalia, Libya and Pakistan because they are largely ungoverned; however, by acting in this manner they further undermine these troubled governments, pushing the description “failed state” ever closer from projection into reality. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has been gaining in strength, moving from the peripheries of the MENA region into its heart; God knows what disastrous plans will be unleashed in order to reverse this trend.
The Libyan PM has been kidnapped at gunpoint, apparently in response to the U.S. raid in Tripoli and the perceived complicacy of the Prime Minister in al-Libi’s illegal extradition. Armed militias had previously conducted sieges of the PM offices demanding his resignation in March and June of this year, although this is certainly their most brazen action (and a disturbing precedent). Fortunately, the Prime Minister was set free hours later, although his political future remains uncertain, as does the fate of his country.