In a daring predawn raid in Tripoli, U.S. Special Operations Command forces captured an al-Qaeda leader wanted in connection with the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed more than 250 people. The operation underscores how Libya, with its competing militias and weak central government, has become a haven for terrorists.
The Pentagon confirmed that U.S. forces captured al-Qaeda leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Anas al-Liby, in the early hours of Saturday morning. According to reporting from the Associated Press, gunmen in a three-car convoy seized al-Liby outside his home in Tripoli early Saturday morning after dawn prayers. Al-Liby’s family told the AP that the gunmen smashed the 49-year-old’s car window, disarmed him, then nabbed him and fled the scene. A federal court in New York had indicted al-Liby for his alleged role in the U.S. bombings. The Pentagon confirmed al-Liby was now in detention outside Libya. He had been on the Federal Bureau of Investigations’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head.
Al-Liby’s presence in Libya is unsurprising given the chaos that has reigned since the 2011 civil war there deposed dictator Muammar Qaddafi, opening another stateless place for Islamic radicals to operate with impunity. Libya’s elected interim government exerts little authority in the country of six million, where patchworks of armed militias continue to thrive using force to press regional and tribal demands on the government. Despite having the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, the country’s economy has plummeted as oil production crumbles. Foreign embassies and international organizations have been repeatedly targeted by petty thieves and armed groups alike.
“Libya has been a complete free-for-all, with no state, no authority, no military, and very little ability to control the borders since its civil war, really, so it’s not surprising that you have figures like him [al-Liby] being able to not only enter the country, but also operate inside the country with very little that the Libyan authorities can do about it,” says Issandr El Amrani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “The Libya state is not able to exert control over its own territory over the use of violence—everyone has weapons—so it has very little ability to do its own policing.”
Al-Liby’s capture comes a little more than a year after U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three Americans were killed when Islamic militants overran the U.S. diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi. The groups thought to be responsible have yet to face charges. On Thursday the Russian foreign ministry confirmed it had evacuated its embassy in Tripoli after armed men stormed the compound the day before. In April 2013 a car bomb destroyed half the French embassy in Tripoli, injuring two guards.
While al-Liby is not thought to have participated in organizing the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy, he underscores the ease with which Islamist militants and radicals can live in post-Qaddafi Libya under the protection or support of local militias.
“You have certain places in Libya where it’s widely assumed that there is jihadist activity and local protection given to jihadists, whether that’s in the south, where Tuareg have returned possibly with and among themselves some Jihadist elements, or on the coast in Derna, which has been a well-known center of jihadist activity,” Amrani, of ICG, says.
Militias of all political stripes have been a thorn in the central government’s side. When interest groups in Tripoli oppose a government action, they seize a ministry or surround the Congress to force the government to submit to their demands. On the eastern side of the country, protesters led by Ibrahim al-Jathran, a revolutionary militia leader who had been in charge of the region’s government-aligned Petroleum Defense Guards, ordered his militia to close two of the main oil export terminals in July to pressure Tripoli to give the eastern region greater autonomy. With the central government unable to move against him, al-Jathran’s popularity surged—eastern and southern Libya have long complained of neglect from the country’s capital.
Groups across the country have launched copycat closures. Oil output has dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day to below 200,000 bpd last month, stalling the country’s economy.
Last month a tribe in the south shut off water to the capital to protest a kidnapping—a common occurrence in Libya. “There is a problem with oil and water closures—we must admit this is a real problem we are facing,” Taher Makni, a General National Congress (GNC) member, said. “We have rebels who undermine the legitimacy of the GNC, who are not strong enough to face them.”
The Libyan government issued a statement on Sunday denying Western news reports that the U.S. government had consulted the Libyan government on the raid. Bloomberg Businessweek’s request for comment from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was not returned.
“In a country where the government is unable to protect key economic and government facilities, it is very hard to ask them to also be able to provide the kind of internal security and the nationwide ability of their security services to track down jihadists and so on. They are not in control of the territory. That’s the bottom line,” says Amrani.
Dealing a blow to the old structures of al-Qaeda is unlikely to solve the newly emerging threat of loosely tied Islamist extremist groups across the region. On the same day as the capture of al-Liby, U.S. special forces launched a raid against a senior leader in Somalia’s al-Shabaab, the group that took responsibility for the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi. Yet threats from splinter militant groups are growing, despite America’s campaign against senior leaders.
Daniel Byman, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, recently said in testimony testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: “The bad news is that affiliates themselves are filling the void created by the weakness of the core.” Although Islamic extremism is unpopular in Libya and North Africa, “these groups take advantage of weak governments and a chaotic operating environment more than they depend on public support.”
“Future attacks, particularly those in North Africa, are likely to involve a Benghazi-style mix of jihadists of different nationalities, making it difficult to determine exactly who is responsible. Libya remains troubled, and the broader Maghreb and Sahel areas are unstable. Greater state weakness, not more stability, is likely in the years to come. So similar plots may be in our future,” Byman said.