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Al-Qaida operative's 'rendition' in Libya an intel coup for U.S. troops

| Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

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 occurred hours after 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 “commandos.”

As they celebrated al-Libi's detention, Obama 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, 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 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 on 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 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 probably is being held on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean. Because his detention has been immediately disclosed — unlike Warsame's — the Obama administration probably will 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.

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