The capture of an alleged al-Qaeda operative outside his home by Special Operations forces in Tripoli on Saturday and his secret removal from Libya was a rare instance of U.S. military involvement in “rendition,” the practice of grabbing terrorism suspects to face trial without an extradition proceeding and long the province of the CIA or the FBI.
U.S. officials hailed the capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, who was wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, as an intelligence coup that will disrupt efforts by al-Qaeda to strengthen its franchise in North Africa.
The raid in Tripoli came hours after U.S. Navy SEALs stormed a beachside compound in Somalia in a failed attempt to nab a senior militant leader from the East African country’s al-Qaeda franchise, known as al-Shabab. The two operations suggested that the Obama administration, which has been criticized for its heavy use of drone strikes against terrorism suspects, is increasingly willing to deploy ground troops, despite the risks, to seize high-value targets.
“These operations in Libya and Somalia send a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. “We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests, and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values.”
The Libyan government on Sunday condemned what it called the “kidnapping” of one of its citizens after Ruqai, known by the alias Anas al-Libi, was forced out of his car and bundled away by men his brother described as foreign-looking “commandos.”
Addressing the Libyan complaints, Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Ruqai “a key al-Qaeda figure.”
“He is a legal and an appropriate target for the U.S. military,” Kerry said, and will face trial in an American court.
Kerry, speaking Monday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bali, Indonesia, gave no details about what the Libyans were told or when.
“We consult regularly with the Libyan government on a range of security and counterterrorism issues but we don’t get into the specifics of our communication with foreign governments on any kind of operation of this kind,” Kerry said.
As to the perception that the capture may mark a return to U.S. terrorism policies that were widely reviled around the world, Kerry stressed that Ruqai will be tried and is legally innocent until proven guilty.
“I hope the perception is in the world that people who commit acts of terror and who have been appropriately indicted by courts of law, by the legal process, will know that United States of America is going to do anything in its power that is legal and appropriate in order to enforce the law and to protect our security,” Kerry said.
As they celebrated Ruqai’s detention, administration officials on Sunday were largely silent on a strike, which apparently failed, by Navy SEALs on a terrorist target in Somalia. SEALs stormed the suspected hideout of an al-Shabab leader Friday night, seeking to detain a senior operative of the group.
A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive mission, said the target of the Somali raid was Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a Kenyan national of Somali descent and a suspected leader of al-Shabab.
The military official said the goal of the operation was to capture Abdulkadir, but that the Navy SEAL team decided to withdraw after encountering heavy fire and concluding that it would be too difficult to take him alive. The team was also concerned that the risk of inflicting casualties on innocent bystanders had become too high.
“It was a capture mission, and when it became evident that we couldn’t capture him alive, the team decided” to withdraw, the official said. “If we wanted to kill this guy, we have lots of ways to do that.”
The operation followed last month’s brazen attack on an upscale mall in Nairobi by al-Shabab that killed dozens of people and raised concerns about the reach of a group that had appeared to be in retreat and focused on Somalia.
A former U.S. Special Operations operative familiar with Somalia policy said that the seaside town of Baraawe, where Friday’s raid took place, has become a key hub for senior al-Shabab leaders after they lost control of other areas. The group exports charcoal from the town, which represents an important source of revenue.
“It’s where the leadership hangs out,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe U.S. intelligence.
U.S. officials said both operations were lawful under war powers that Congress granted the executive branch after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.