Kerry Defends Raids on Suspects Amid Libya Criticism

Secretary of State John Kerry defended an operation in which an al-Qaeda fugitive was taken off the streets of Libya by American special forces, and said the U.S. won’t stop its pursuit of terrorists around the world.

“Abu Anas al-Libi -- he is a key al-Qaeda figure and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the U.S. military under the Authorization of the Use of Military Force passed in September of 2001,” Kerry said at a news conference on the sidelines of an APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Responding to Libyan criticism that the U.S. didn’t inform them of the operation in advance, Kerry said “the U.S. regularly consults with the Libyan government on a range of security and counter-terrorism issues, but we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government.”

U.S. forces also raided a Somali town in search of a leader of the Islamist group al-Shabaab. The operation was carried out against a known al-Shabaab terrorist, said George Little, a Pentagon spokesman. He declined to give details. Al-Libi is “currently lawfully detained under the law of war” outside of Libya, Little said in a subsequent statement yesterday.

U.S. armed forces undertook the missions “to hunt down those responsible for acts of terrorism,” Kerry said yesterday. “This makes clear that the U.S. will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”

Westgate Mall

Special Operations forces raided the port of Baraawe, south of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, a U.S. official briefed on the mission said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because counter-terrorism operations are classified, said one of the main targets of the air and sea assault was a suspected leader of al-Shabaab, which said it carried out an attack on the Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, last month that killed at least 67 people.

The official declined to given the name of the leader, who he said was targeted for capture and may have been killed in an extended firefight between U.S. Navy SEALs and fighters in the village. The objective of most such missions is to capture and interrogate terrorist leaders, not kill them, the official said. No U.S. personnel were killed or injured, he said.

U.S. forces captured al-Libi in connection with his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s efforts to kill U.S. nationals and to conduct attacks against U.S. interests worldwide, Little said yesterday. He has been indicted in the Southern District of New York, he said.

Embassy Bombings

“Our first priority is and always has been to apprehend terrorist suspects, and to preserve the opportunity to elicit valuable intelligence that can help us protect the American people,” Little said. “These actions are a clear sign that the United States is committed to using all the tools at our disposal to bring to justice those who commit terrorist acts.”

The al-Qaeda plots targeted U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia and U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Little said. The operation was approved by President Barack Obama.

“The president has made clear our preference for capturing terrorist targets when possible, and that’s exactly what we’ve done in order to elicit as much valuable intelligence as we can and bring a dangerous terrorist to justice,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement yesterday. The statement didn’t mention the raid in Somalia.

“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,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

New York Indictment

Born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, al-Libi had been indicted by the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York in 2000 for taking part in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Jumaa Al Mishri, an Interior Ministry official, said in a phone interview yesterday that al-Libi was taken in front of his house in eastern Tripoli as he was returning from a mosque. Those who took him “spoke the Libyan dialect,” Al Mishri said, without elaborating.

Libya, in a statement on the government’s official Facebook page, yesterday asked the U.S. to explain its role in the seizure of one of its citizens.

“The government stresses how keen it is that Libyans should face trial in Libya regardless of the charges, and that suspects are innocent until proven guilty,” it said in the statement. “Concerned ministries have been tasked with following up the matter with U.S. authorities.”

Strategic Partnership

The Libyan government said it “hopes” the strategic partnership with the U.S. “isn’t threatened by this incident,” according to the statement.

The al-Shabaab figure sought in Somalia was also a link between extremists in East Africa and the remnants of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate, according to the official briefed on that raid.

The “raid is definitely connected to the Westgate attack, because the target was al-Shabaab leaders,” Emmanuel Kisiangani, a Nairobi-based analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, said yesterday in a phone interview. “We are likely to see the U.S., Kenya and other countries actively pursuing terrorists to step up efforts to at least disorganize al-Shabaab using tactics like this raid.”

U.S. and Kenyan authorities hoped to question members of al-Shabaab captured in Baraawe about the mall attack, and wanted to know whether the group was making plans with other al-Qaeda affiliates for attacks elsewhere in the world, the official said.

Manoah Esipisu, a Kenyan presidency spokesman, said in a phone interview yesterday that the “assault” was a U.S. operation and questions about it should be directed to the Americans.

U.S. Special Operations forces killed another senior al-Shabaab leader, Saleh Ali Saleh, not far from Baraawe in 2009, the official said.

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