On Saturday a United States special forces unit operating in Tripoli captured a Libyan citizen suspected of participation in terrorist bombings against American targets. The man, Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai (better known under the alias Abu Anas al-Libi), has been on the U.S. most-wanted list for fifteen years due to his alleged membership in Al Qaeda and his involvement in the coordinated bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. Libi is apparently now being held on a U.S. ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite reports that the Libyan government had been informed about the operation, the prime minister's office issued a statement denying any knowledge of the operation and calling upon Washington to clarify its actions. The statement also said that the government hopes that Libi's capture will not damage the strategic relationship between post-revolution Libya and the United States.
There are conflicting reports about how the American commandos snatched Libi in Tripoli, but a few interesting details have come out. The son of Libi (shown in his family home at left in the photo above) told Alnabaa TV that his father was arrested by a group of masked men speaking local Libyan dialect. That suggests that the Americans either used locals in the operation or that the Libyan government was involved to some extent.
The current Libyan government, and the Ministry of Justice in particular, have been championing human rights and the rule of law. How the Tripoli government handles this case will determine its credibility on human rights, particularly in cases involving people wanted by other nations for terrorism-related activities.
The news of Abu Anas al-Libi's capture has met with mixed reactions from the Libyan people. Many in Libya condemn terrorism and terrorists, and it's safe to say that most strongly oppose the activities of religious extremist groups. Intriguingly, in an impromptu survey of 400 of its viewers, Libya's International TV channel concluded that 68.75 percent of them support the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, mainly citing the Libyan government's inability to deal with suspected terrorists. The other 31.25 percent opposed the American action on the grounds that it violated Libyan sovereignty, and that such incidents will complicate the security situation even further in Libya.
Nonetheless, the timing of the U.S. operation raises some serious concerns. Even if many Libyans do approve of Libi's arrest, the U.S. action still administers a serious blow to the Libyan government by undermining its credibility and further weakening trust in the current authorities' ability to run the country and ensure a successful democratic transition. The government is already struggling to assert its control over many parts in the country, and this latest event is bound to complicate matters.
Some Libyans have been expecting a U.S. intervention in their country ever since last year's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Others here say that they're surprised that it took the Americans this long to mount their operations. Abu Anas al-Libi, however, has no connection with the Benghazi consulate attack, which has prompted some to wonder when the Americans will go after those responsible for Stevens' killing. And when that happens, Libyans wonder whether Washington will act in collaboration with the Tripoli government or will once again choose to go it alone.
There is a palpable danger that this latest operation will undermine the sovereignty of Libya and an already weak government that is unable to protect itself or its people against possible retaliation by radicals, especially in the country's East. Many seem to think that U.S. operations on Libyan soil will galvanize support for the extremist groups, radicalizing their sympathizers. The radicalization process could mean that more people will join calls for "jihad" against what they will claim to be a war on Islam led by the U.S. forces and aided by an alleged "infidel puppet government." On Sunday, several dozen members of Ansar al-Sharia, the group accused of orchestrating the killing of Ambassador Stevens, demonstrated in the eastern city of Benghazi. They accused the Tripoli government of standing by while the Americans captured Libi.
Libyans realize that it is hard for them to stand up to international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda without help from the countries of the West. There are worries that the U.S. is not interested in seeing the issue through by coordinating its efforts with the Libyan authorities and helping them face the growing presence and activities of terrorists and international terrorist organizations.
The capture of Libi will definitely have an effect on the security situation. Its main impact is likely to be an increase in retaliatory attacks against Western targets in Libya as well as against the Tripoli government itself, insofar as jihadis suspect it of involvement. The only way to head off a negative dynamic of this type is intensifying coordination on counterterrorism between the Tripoli authorities and Washington.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.