President Barack Obama personally approved a daring raid by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and agents from the CIA and FBI that led to the capture of an al Qaida leader outside his home in Libya, according to officials who were briefed on the events.
The raid on Saturday nabbed a former lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqqai who’s better known by his alias, Abu Anas al Libi. The Defense Department said Sunday that he was being held on a U.S naval ship in the Mediterranean.
Even some of Obama’s harshest critics gave him credit for Saturday’s operation; al Libi is believed to be one of the masterminds behind the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“I think that this is a plus,” Rep. Steve King, a conservative Republican from Iowa, told CNN. “I’m certainly glad that we have that kind of order out there for those missions. It strengthens his hand probably marginally, but it’s a good thing.”
Al Libi, who’s been indicted for terrorism related offenses in New York, returned to his hometown of Tripoli in 2011 after U.S.-backed rebels toppled and killed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Benjamin Barber, author of two books on U.S. counterterrorism policies and a senior research fellow at New York University, said al Libi had been able to live openly in Tripoli because afer Gadhafi’s fall, the North African nation had become “a broken-down, rogue state” run by tribal militias.
“These are the folks we put into power,” he told McClatchy. “They released all the al Qaida guys (from prison). They let this guy (al Libi) back into the country. They are, in effect, protecting the clan or tribe that killed our ambassador in Benghazi. Those guys are still on the loose, and the regime can’t do anything about them.”
U.S. officials said al Libi, 49, would eventually be tried in the United States and not sent to the controversial U.S. prison for alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But with al Libi being held at sea for interrogation by U.S. intelligence agencies, Barber said he wouldn’t expect him to be brought to the United States for criminal prosecution in the near future.
The Libyan government said Sunday it had not been told in advance of the U.S. raid, contradicting U.S. officials who claimed that there was some advance notice.
The FBI had placed a $5 million bounty on al Libi’s head and made him one of its most-wanted fugitives after he was indicted in New York on charges of having helped plan the August 1998 bombings that killed 223 people at the embassies in Africa, among them two CIA agents and 10 other Americans.
In Libya, al Libi’s wife and brother said his car was surrounded by U.S. commandos when he drove up to his home in the Libyan capital after attending morning prayers.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said U.S. interrogators should make every effort to extract “the vast intelligence value” from al Libi before transferring him to FBI custody for trial in New York.
“I urge the (Obama) administration to fully exploit this potential before moving al Libi on to prosecution, rather than follow an arbitrary timeline,” McKeon said in a statement. “This can be done safely and humanely, but it must be done thoroughly.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Libya raid, and another one in Somalia that apparently failed to capture a top member of the al Qaida-affiliated al Shabab movement, “demonstrate the unparalleled precision, global reach and capabilities of the United States military.”
There were few details known about the Somalia raid on a seaside villa in the town of Baraawe. Members of Navy Seal Team Six – the unit that killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 – engaged in a half-hour firefight with al Shabab militants before breaking off their attempt to capture the al Shabab leader, who was not identified.
U.S. officials later said at least one al Shabab fighter was killed. There were no U.S. casualties in either the Libya or Somalia raid, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials did not identify the target of the raid. Somali news websites said they believed it was Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, also known as Ahmed Abdi Godane, the head of al Shabab.
Al Shabab had claimed responsibility for last month’s attack on the fashionable Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi that left at least 67 people dead.
Secretary of State John Kerry, on an Asia tour in Bali, Indonesia, said Sunday that the twin raids sent a strong message to anti-American Islamic fundamentalists.
“We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror and (that) those members of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run, but they can’t hide,” Kerry said.
Eric Greitens, a former Navy Seal, said the decision to pull back from the Somalia raid Saturday was likely colored by the so-called Black Hawk Down tragedy that took place two decades earlier in the nearby Somali capital of Mogadishu.
“Your intelligence picture, no matter how good it is, is never going to be perfect,” Greitens told ABC’s “This Week.” “And in this case, it sounds like they met more resistance than they expected. It’s a very complex, difficult situation, fighting on the ground. They decided to pull back and reengage another day.”
Michael Leiter, who headed the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011 under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, said al Libi’s capture is a setback for al Qaida in the region, but he said it’s worrisome that the global fugitive felt safe enough to move about freely in the Libyan capital.
In Somalia, Leiter said it was unfortunate that the United States failed in its apparent bid to capture a key al Shabab leader.
“Not getting him is obviously bad because he’s still in Somalia, but we also didn’t get any intelligence that we would hope to gather from a SEAL-like raid,” Leiter told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Special correspondent Mel Frykberg in Jerusalem and Michael Doyle in Washington contributed to this report.