CAIRO — U.S. forces captured a leader of Al Qaeda indicted in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, ending a 15-year manhunt by seizing him in broad daylight near the Libyan capital, U.S. officials said.
The suspect, born Nazih Abd al Hamid al-Ruqhay and known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas el-Liby, has been high on the list of the U.S. government’s most-wanted fugitives since at least 2000, when a New York court indicted him for his part in planning the embassy attacks. The FBI had offered a bounty of up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.
Abu Anas was captured alive near Tripoli in a joint operation by the U.S. military, the CIA and the FBI, and was in U.S. custody, a U.S. official said.
His capture was the latest grave blow to what remains of the original Al Qaeda organization after a 12-year-old U.S. campaign to capture or kill its leadership, including the killing two years ago of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in a compound in Pakistan.
Abu Anas is not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation say, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the Al Qaeda organization to like-minded militants in his native Libya.
Senior officials of the Libyan transitional government said they were unaware of the operation that captured him. Some vehemently insisted that their forces would play no role in any such U.S. military operation on Libyan soil.
But a senior U.S. official said the Libyan government was involved in the operation.
Disclosure of the raid is likely to inflame anxieties among many Libyans about their national sovereignty, putting a new strain on the transitional government’s fragile authority. Many Libyans already suspect that their interim prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who previously lived in Geneva as part of the exile opposition to Moammar Gadhafi, of collaborating too closely with the West.
Abu Anas, a 49-year-old born in Tripoli, is believed to have joined bin Laden’s organization as early as the early 1990s, when it was based in Sudan. He later moved to Britain, where he had been granted political asylum. U.S. prosecutors in New York charged him in a 2000 indictment with helping to conduct “visual and photographic surveillance” of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and again in 1995. In the indictment, prosecutors said Abu Anas had discussed with another senior Al Qaeda figure the idea of attacking a U.S. target in retaliation for the U.S. peacekeeping operation in Somalia.
After the 1998 bombing, the British police raided his apartment and found an 18-chapter terrorist training manual in Arabic. Titled “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants,” it included advice on car bombing, torture, sabotage and disguise.
A U.S. official said Abu Anas was to be brought to the United States for trial.
Since the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011, Tripoli has slid steadily into lawlessness, with no strong central government or police presence. It has become a haven for militants seeking to avoid detection elsewhere, and U.S. government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information, have acknowledged in recent months that Abu Anas and other internationally wanted terrorists had been seen moving freely around the capital.
His seizure was first reported Saturday in a short online posting on Twitter by a Libyan-born counterterrorism analyst based in London, Noman Benotman.
His capture coincided with a fierce gunfight that killed 15 Libyan soldiers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood southeast of Tripoli, near the homeland of Abu Anas’ clan. A spokesman for the Libyan army general staff, Col. Ali Sheikhi, said five cars full of armed men in masks had pulled up at the army checkpoint at 6:15 a.m. and opened fire at point-blank range. Gunmen also fired from other positions further away in a coordinated attack, he said, and four soldiers were wounded but survived the attack. It was not clear if the assault was related to the capture of Abu Anas.
The United States has sharply reduced its diplomatic presence in Libya since the attack that killed former Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on Sept 11, 2012. But it maintains a robust effort there trying to study and track suspected terrorists.