A US Special Forces team in civilian garb snatched Abu Anas al-Libi in the upscale Libyan suburb of Nofliene, five kilometers form Tripoli, on Saturday Oct. 5. They burst into his home and bundled him into one of the three civilian vehicles that brought them to the address.
Although the house had a high wall like all the buildings on this street, the American force entered easily through a gate left open by a guard for a wad of cash and instructions from the top man in the local Libyan security service branch.
The next day, it was reported that the captured terrorist had been moved from Tripoli to the USS San Antonio, an amphibious transport dock ship sailing in the Mediterranean, and would be kept there for two months of interrogation.
But after only ten days, on Tuesday, Oct, 15, he was transported from the navy vessel and brought before a New York federal judge.
Giving his given name as Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie, al-Libi (nicknamed “the Libyan”) appeared in court in a black sweater and grey jogging pants to hear Judge Lewis Kaplan read out the charges against him. They included conspiracy to bomb two US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The attack in Nairobi, Kenya on Aug. 7 of that year caused 213 deaths and 5,000 injuries. The almost simultaneous truck bomb explosion outside the US mission in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 people and wounded 70.
Blank pages in an apparently open life
In a gravelly voice, Libi confirmed his name and age, said he understood the proceedings and pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Judge Kaplan adjourned the hearing until October 22.
One of the oddest things about this episode is the abrupt ending of his interrogation. If he was indeed a high-value intelligence trove on Al Qaeda, why was the in-depth questioning interrupted after only10 days? Either it was enough, which is strange, or it never took place.
In the view of DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources, Al Libi was far from being a walking trove of Al Qaeda secrets, although his career as a terrorist was indeed checkered and full of blank pages.
On the surface, his life was pretty much an open book during the 18 years after Osama bin Laden threw him out of Al Qaeda’s Sudan headquarters in 1995 in response to a request from the Sudanese government.
Khartoum was urged by the Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi to stop harboring Libyan Al-Qaeda operatives who were plotting his overthrow in order to replace him with an Islamist regime.
An apologetic Bin Laden handed his Libyan followers led by al-Libi sacks of cash and sent them packing to different destinations around the world.
Al-Libi found a berth in Manchester, England, one of the bases of the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. From there, he joined the plot for a spectacular terrorist attack on US interests in Africa in revenge for American intervention in Somalia.
A role in the East African embassy bombings
Identifiable by a scar on the left side of his face, al-Libi soon earned respect in the terrorist network for his knowledge of computers and skills in training jihadist recruits.
In late 1993, Al-Libi conducted photographic surveillance of the US Embassy in Nairobi – five years before the attack was mounted, according Jamal al-Fadl, an Al-Qaeda adherent turned US state witness.
Al-Fadl revealed that the photos were processed at a makeshift darkroom in the apartment of L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan Al-Qaeda fighter who once acted as Bin Laden's pilot.
"Bin Laden then inspected the photos and pointed to the opening in the American embassy where a truck driven by a suicide bomber could gain entry,” al-Fadl told a judge.
Five years later, the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania were bombed and Al Qaeda had begun drawing its future road map.
For a US court, the chain of evidence connecting the surveillance material collected by Al-Libi to the planners of those attacks is still missing. Indeed, Al-Libi was not trusted in high-placed Al Qaeda circles, who were suspicious of his contacts with Western undercover agencies, especially the British and French secret services. He is said to have offered to serve them as a double agent or political assassin for exorbitant fees.
The British police let him go
A year before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Al-Libi turned up suddenly again in Manchester. Word of his arrival there stirred the FBI into action. Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism official, said he was a member of a small squad of agents rushed across the Atlantic to arrest the wanted master terrorist in the English city.
He was in fact seized and his home raided, said Soufan. But he was released later after the search failed to discover any smoking gun linking him to the attacks.
In his memoir The Black Banners, Soufan said that John O'Neill, then head of the FBI's Bin Laden unit, warned British detectives that they were making a serious mistake by letting him go.
“You can be certain he'll skip town before we have time to sort through all the evidence and find something – which I'm sure is there," O'Neill, who died in the September 11 attack, was quoted as saying.
Although he had been indicted in America, the British did not extradite Al-Libi for reasons unknown. The Libyan took the opportunity and skipped town, as the FBI agent had predicted, showing a clean pair of heels to the minders told to keep him in sight.
A subsequent examination of al-Libi's possessions turned up a volume later dubbed the "Manchester Manual", with instructions to Al-Qaeda operatives on the execution of terrorist attacks and tricks for standing up to interrogation. This evidence that Al Qaeda operatives had been trained to resist law enforcement attempts to extract information later served George W. Bush's administration as justification for torturing Al Qaeda suspects
Al-Libi – a comparatively inconsequential Al Qaeda figure
Two years later, in 2002, al-Libi was alleged in a book by two French intelligence experts, to have belonged to a Libyan Al Qaeda cell paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by the British secret service in the mid-1990s to assassinate the Libyan ruler Col. Qaddafi.
The plot fizzled.
The French writers claimed that the plot and its failure caused Britain to play down Libya’s request in 1998 for an international warrant for the arrest of Osama Bin Laden, the first ever issued for the Al Qaeda leader.
It is still not known exactly when Al-Libi arrived in Libya and when he established residence in Nofliene where he was captured. But this particular suspect has for years known to have distanced himself from association with terrorist activity.
So if the Osama administration or US counterterrorism agencies are on a drive to purge Libya of terrorists tied to Al Qaeda, they had their pick of a long list of dangerously proactive suspects of far greater current value than Al-Libi. Maybe he presented them with a more visible and easy target.