Capturing al-Libi Could Prove Costly

by Wayne White

This weekend’s US capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai’I, better known by his alias, Anas al-Libi, might net only limited information of current intelligence value while potentially resulting in militant Islamist payback in what remains a very fragile Libya. Of no less than three al-Qaeda operatives bearing the alias al-Libi (simply “the Libyan” in Arabic), Anas al-Libi could be the least significant overall. And should a Libyan militant Islamic group or militia decide to retaliate for this bold US grab, they are capable of doing significant harm.

Anas al-Libi’s former association with al-Qaeda is well-known, as are standing US indictments against him for actions related to the horrific 1998 East Africa bombing. Yet, relatively little seems to be known about how active he remained over the past few years. So the information he has might not be particularly useful if, for example, he was not knowledgeable about or involved in last year’s Benghazi consulate attack or other recent operations. US authorities apparently believe he has been working to expand al-Qaeda’s network in Libya (although perhaps not a certainty since he has been living in Tripoli without security).

By contrast, Abu Yahya al-Libi, killed by an American drone strike in northwest Pakistan in June 2012, stayed very close to both Osama Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He remained a key ideological hardliner within the core al-Qaeda leadership as well, right up to the time of his death. Abu Abdullah al-Libi, the former commander of the extremist al-Qaeda linked Libyan Fighting Group, participated in the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi. Since then he had moved on to Syria with some of his veteran Libyan fighters to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He quickly rose in stature within the al-Qaeda associated ISIL until he was one of its top commanders (some say its leader). Abu Abdullah al-Libi, however, reportedly was killed in fighting in northern Syria last month.

The operation to snatch Anas al-Libi has placed Libya’s weak central government in a difficult position. Although Prime Minister Ali Zeidan contacted Washington late on Oct. 6 asking for clarifications concerning the kidnapping, he stated today that Libyan-US relations would not be affected. Yet, he probably fears potential blowback because such unilateral US action is embarrassing (regardless of whether the US struck based on advance warning or an existing understanding regarding such security operations), and his government probably does not have much of an ability to prevent militant retaliatory action.

Vast areas of the country remain under the control of various militias (some of them extremist), tribes, or other local authorities such as those in charge of Libya’s third largest city, Misrata. Much of the government’s own security is provided by militias that did not stand down following Muammar Qadhafi’s ouster, and a variety of key assets (such as the country’s vital oil installations) currently are not under effective government control.

Some such militias allied to the government provide the only security available for high value targets like official buildings and embassies, but they have been of uneven reliability. Libyan security was unable to stop an angry mob from storming the Russian embassy compound in Tripoli on October 2 after a Russian woman killed a Libyan. No Russian embassy personnel were killed or injured, but the mob broke into the compound, one attacker was killed, and there was quite a bit of damage. Had a determined, well-armed extremist militia done so, the results would have been far worse. Citing fears that the Libyan government is unable to protect its staffers, Moscow ordered the embassy completely evacuated the next day.

A senior Libyan government security official who used to command an Islamist militia appeared supportive of the raid on Sunday, but said it reflected badly on the lack of such knowledge and power on the part of his own government. He warned there that would be a “strong reaction” by militant Islamists to “take revenge” for the al-Libi capture, and predicted contrary to American hopes: “This just won’t pass.” Meanwhile, various Libyan jihadists have taken to the Internet calling for the kidnapping of US and allied citizens as well as attacks on oil infrastructure, ships and aircraft.

Al-Qaeda figures like Anas al-Libi with blood on their hands should be targeted, regardless of whether they remain active, in order to remind other key operatives of their potential fate — no matter how much time passes. Yet, even in all-out conventional conflicts, actions from isolated attacks to major military campaigns are judged upon their plusses and minuses. It remains to be seen whether, on balance, scooping up al-Libi at this particular time in a friendly, but very shaky, Libya turns out to be a wise move.

Meanwhile, Washington must increase its vigilance and security substantially relating to the US mission in Tripoli in particular. The US probably should do likewise regarding its assets in Egypt. The lengthy Egyptian-Libyan border is highly porous, and Egypt’s ruling military still has not gotten a solid hold on the Egyptian security situation. Consequently, Egypt offers another fluid environment possibly of interest to Libyan extremists seeking payback.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.