U.S. special forces captured a Libyan al-Qaida leader linked to the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa, seizing him outside his Tripoli home and whisking him out the country. A Navy SEAL team that swam ashore hours earlier in Somalia engaged in a fierce firefight but did not apprehend a terrorist suspected in the recent Kenyan mall siege.
“We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday while in Indonesia for an economic summit. “Members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.”
The Pentagon identified the al-Qaida leader captured Saturday as Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Libi. He has been on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list since it was introduced shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. There was a $5 million bounty on his head.
He was indicted by a federal court in New York for his alleged role in the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, on August 7, 1998, that killed more than 220 people.
The U.S. Defense Department’s chief spokesman, George Little, said the suspect is “lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location outside of Libya.” Little’s statement did not elaborate.
In the earlier raid Saturday, the Navy SEAL team reached land near a town in southern Somalia before militants of the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab rose for dawn prayers, U.S. and Somali officials told The Associated Press.
The assault on a house in Barawe targeted a specific al-Qaida suspect related to the Nairobi mall attack, but the operation did not get its target, one current and one former U.S. military official told the AP.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the raid publicly.
Little confirmed that U.S. military personnel were involved in a counterterrorism operation against a known al-Shabab terrorist in Somalia, but did not provide details.
The leader of al-Shabab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Ahmed Godane, claimed responsibility for the mall attack, a four-day terrorist siege that began Sept. 21 and killed at least 67 people. A Somali intelligence official said the al-Shabab leader was the U.S. target.
Kerry said the United States would “continue to try to bring people to justice in an appropriate way with hopes that ultimately these kinds of activities against everybody in the world will stop.”
American officials said there were no U.S. casualties in either the Somali or Libyan operation.
Al-Libi’s capture would represent a significant blow to what remains of the core al-Qaida organization once led by Osama bin Laden.
A senior U.S. military official said the Tripoli raid was carried out by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, which has responsibility for counterterrorism operations in North Africa. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the operation and discussed it on condition of anonymity.
Family members said gunmen in a three-car convoy seized al-Libi outside his home in the Libyan capital. Al-Libi is believed to have returned to Libya during the 2011 civil war that led to the ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
His brother, Nabih, said the 49-year-old was parking outside his house early Saturday after dawn prayers, when three vehicles surrounded his vehicle. The gunmen smashed his car’s window and seized his gun before grabbing al-Libi and fleeing. The brother said al-Libi’s wife saw the kidnapping from her window and described the abductors as foreign-looking armed “commandos.”
Libya asked the United States on Sunday for “clarifications” regarding the raid and said any Libyan should face trial in his own country.
Al-Libi was believed to be a computer specialist with al-Qaida. He studied electronic and nuclear engineering, graduating from Tripoli University, and was an anti-Gadhafi activist.
He is believed to have spent time in Sudan, where bin Laden was based in the early 1990s. After bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan, al-Libi turned up in Britain in 1995 where he was granted political asylum under unclear circumstances and lived in Manchester. He was arrested by Scotland Yard in 1999, but released because of lack of evidence and later fled Britain.
The raid in Somalia came 20 years after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, when a mission to capture Somali warlords in the capital went awry after militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters. Eighteen U.S. soldiers died in the battle, which marked the beginning of the end of that U.S. military mission to try to bring stability to the nation.
Since then, U.S. military intervention has been limited to missile attacks and lightning operations by special forces.
Saturday’s operation was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed in Laden in his Pakistan hideout in 2011, another senior U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
The team ran into fiercer resistance than expected, and after a 15 minutes to 20 minute firefight, the unit’s leader decided to abort the mission and the Americans swam away, the official said. SEAL Team Six has responsibility for counterterrorism activities in the Horn of Africa.
A resident of Barawe, which is about 150 miles south of Mogadishu, said by telephone that heavy gunfire woke up residents before dawn prayers.
The U.S. forces attacked a two-story beachside house where foreign fighters lived, said an al-Shabab fighter who gave his name as Abu Mohamed and who said he had visited the scene.
Al-Shabab has a formal alliance with al-Qaida, and hundreds of men from the U.S., Britain and Middle Eastern countries fight alongside Somali members of al-Shabab.
A U.S. official said U.S. forces disengaged after inflicting some casualties on the fighters, said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name and insisted on anonymity.
An al-Shabab official, Sheikh Abdiaziz Abu Musab, said in an audio message that the raid failed to achieve its goals.
Al-Shabab and al-Qaida have flourished in Somalia for years.
In September 2009 a daylight commando raid in Barawe killed six people, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the most-wanted al-Qaida operatives in the region and an alleged plotter in the embassy bombings.
Al-Shabab later posted pictures on the Internet of what it said was U.S. military gear left behind in the raid. Pictures showed items including bullets, an ammunition magazine, a military GPS device and a smoke and flash-bang grenade used to clear rooms.