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.
“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.”