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U.S. Defends Suspect Grab In Libya

FBI: Man Captured Wanted  In 1998 Embassy Bombings

This image from the FBI website shows Anas al-Libi. Gunmen in a three-car convoy seized Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader connected to the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa and wanted by the U.S. for more than a decade outside his house Saturday in the Libyan capital, his relatives said. (AP Photo/FBI)

This image from the FBI website shows Anas al-Libi. Gunmen in a three-car convoy seized Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader connected to the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa and wanted by the U.S. for more than a decade outside his house Saturday in the Libyan capital, his relatives said. (AP Photo/FBI)

Washington — The capture of an alleged al-Qaida operative outside his home by Special Operations Forces in Tripoli on Saturday and his secret removal from Libya was a rare instance of U.S. military involvement in “rendition,” the practice of grabbing terrorism suspects to face trial without an extradition proceeding and long the province of the CIA or the FBI.

U.S. officials hailed the capture of Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Anas al-Libi, who was wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, as an intelligence coup that will disrupt efforts by al-Qaida to strengthen its franchise in North Africa.

The raid in Tripoli came hours after U.S. Navy SEALs stormed a beachside compound in Somalia in a failed attempt to nab a senior militant leader from the east African country’s al-Qaida franchise, known as al-Shabab. The two operations suggested that the Obama administration, which has been criticized for its heavy use of drone strikes against terrorism suspects, is increasingly willing to put ground troops in harm’s way in order to seize high-value targets.

“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,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. “We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests, and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values.”

The Libyan government on Sunday condemned what it called the “kidnapping” of one of its citizens after al-Libi was forced out of his car and bundled away by men his brother described as foreign-looking “commandoes.”

As they celebrated al-Libi’s detention, administration officials on Sunday were largely silent on a strike by Navy SEALs on a terrorist target in Somalia that appears to have failed. SEALs stormed the suspected hideout of a leader of al-Shabab on Friday night, seeking to detain a senior operative of the group. The troops retreated after an intense gunfight unfolded, fearing that escalating it could result in civilian casualties, U.S. officials said.

The operation was carried out in response to last month’s brazen attack on an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by al-Shabab that killed dozens of people and raised concerns about the reach of a group that had appeared to be in retreat and focused on Somalia.

A former U.S. Special Operations Forces operative familiar with Somalia policy said that the seaside town of Baraawe, where Friday’s raid took place, has become a key hub for senior al-Shabab leaders after they lost control of other areas.

The group exports charcoal from the town, which represents an important source of revenue.

“It’s where the leadership hangs out,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe U.S. intelligence.

U.S. officials said both operations were lawful under war powers that Congress granted the executive branch after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.

“Our personnel in the armed forces conducted two operations in order to continue to hunt down those responsible for acts of terrorism,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday in Indonesia, where he is attending a summit. “We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America never stops in its efforts to hold accountable those who conduct acts of terror.”

U.S. officials also noted that al-Libi is on a U.N. sanctions list and has been indicted in federal court in New York. They released no information about where he is being detained, but suggested that intelligence personnel are eager to interrogate him.

The closest historical parallel to al-Libi’s capture, U.S. officials said, was the April 2011 detention of Amed Warsame, a Somali man who was accused of acting as a liaison between the al-Qaida branch in his native country and one in Yemen. Warsame, who was seized aboard a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Aden, pleaded guilty this spring in federal court to providing material support to terrorist organizations.

Warsame was held secretly at sea on a U.S. Navy vessel for 40 days and questioned by an interagency interrogation unit led by the FBI before being flown to New York for arraignment.

Robert Chesney, an expert in national security law at the University of Texas, said al-Libi is probably being held on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean. Because his detention has been immediately disclosed — unlike Warsame’s — the Obama administration will probably come under pressure to bring him before a judge in New York quickly .

“The longer you hold him, the trickier it gets,” Chesney said, noting that a prolonged military detention could become problematic for federal prosecutors in a civilian court.

Libya’s government said in a statement issued on Sunday that it had not been consulted before U.S. troops snatched al-Libi.

“Since hearing the news, the Libyan government has been in contact with American authorities and has asked them to offer clarification,” the government said, arguing that Libyans who face terrorism charges should be tried at home.

The government noted, though, that it deems its relationship with the United States a “strategic partnership” that would not be imperiled by Saturday’s operation.

Since the 2011 civil war that toppled the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has been wracked by lawlessness, growing extremism and sporadic outbreaks of violence between rival militias. The country’s newly elected government wields little authority across the oil-rich country, where militias established during the conflict continue to hold the bulk of weapons and power.

Even Libya’s military leaders, who have received counterterrorism training and funding from the United States, expressed surprise at an operation that was, in some respects, reminiscent of the CIA’s rendition of terrorism suspects during the years that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We found out from media outlets just like everybody else,” said Aly Sheikhi, a spokesman for the Libyan armed forces chief of staff.

He said he had no additional information about the incident.

Unlike former CIA captives, however, al-Libi will be brought before a federal criminal court relatively quickly and will not be held incommunicado indefinitely or turned over to a third country for interrogation, a policy know as “extraordinary rendition.”

After he assumed office, President Obama barred the use of extraordinary rendition but reserved the right to capture and render some suspects for trial in the United States.

A U.S. official declined to say whether the Libyan government had been notified in advance of Saturday’s operation, but the official added that Washington considers the new government in Tripoli “a partner in the fight against al-Qaida.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert operation, said that al-Libi’s capture is seen as a significant victory because he was believed to be pivotal to the resurgence of al-Qaida’s North Africa branch. The official would not say whether al-Libi was transported out of Libya by sea or air. He also declined to say where al-Libi is currently being held or when he might be arraigned in federal court.

“We’re interested in what he has been doing since those times,” said the official, referring to the 1998 attack. “There are concerns that he has attempted to grow al-Qaida’s capabilities in North Africa.”

The reemergence of Libya-based jihadists intent on striking on Western targets has been a top U.S. intelligence priority since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on American government installations in the eastern city of Benghazi.