TRIPOLI, Libya — A day after U.S. commandos carried out raids in two African countries aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects, Libya’s interim government on Sunday demanded an explanation from Washington for what it called the “kidnapping” of a Libyan suspect. In the capital, Libyan civilians and political officials reacted with surprise and confusion.
On Saturday, U.S. troops assisted by FBI and CIA agents seized Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Liby, a suspected leader of al-Qaida, on the streets of Tripoli. At around the same time, a Navy SEAL team raided the seaside villa of a militant leader in a predawn firefight on the coast of Somalia.
Abu Anas was indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and had a $5 million bounty on his head.
“It was a good thing,” said a businessman in Tripoli who asked to be identified only by his given name, Hassan, referring to the capture of Abu Anas. “These men are the main reason we are facing issues like this, and they should be taken out of the country. Even my friends were happy to clean the country of those terrorists.”
Libyan officials and members of Parliament said they could not comment on the raid because they did not know all the facts.
Other Libyans said they were angered that the raid had caught their government by surprise and that foreign troops were conducting military operations in their country. They also expressed concern that Islamists would retaliate, perhaps by attacking the U.S. Embassy here, and that the Americans would strike back, leading to an escalation in violence.
In Somalia, the SEAL team emerged before sunrise from the Indian Ocean and exchanged gunfire with militants at the home of a senior leader of al-Shabab, a Somali militant group. The raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, after a massacre by al-Shabab at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed more than 60 people two weeks ago.
The SEAL team was forced to withdraw before it could confirm that it had killed the al-Shabab leader, a senior U.S. security official said. Officials declined to identify the target.
Officials said the timing of the two raids was coincidental. But occurring on the same day, they underscored the rise of northern Africa as a haven for international terrorists. Libya has collapsed into the control of a patchwork of militias since the ouster of the Moammar Gadhafi’s government in 2011. Somalia, the birthplace of al-Shabab, has lacked an effective central government for more than two decades.
On Sunday, Libya’s government called for more information regarding the American operation.
“As soon as it heard the reports, the Libyan government contacted the United States authorities to demand an explanation” for “the kidnapping of a Libyan citizen,” the government said in a statement.
The demand appeared to contradict the statements of U.S. officials Saturday that the Libyan government had played some role in the seizure of Abu Anas.
His capture signaled a significant break with Washington’s previous reluctance to send U.S. Special Operations forces into Libya to capture wanted terrorists or suspects in the deadly attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012. The U.S. government had refrained from such interventions for fear of setting off a backlash that could destabilize or overwhelm Libya’s fledgling transitional government, which is still struggling to muster a viable national police force or military.
But U.S. officials have now apparently run out of patience, potentially signaling a new willingness to try to apprehend suspects in the Benghazi attack, as well.
Islamists in Benghazi, where false rumors of an imminent U.S. raid have been frequent, said anyone who might feel threatened by such a raid had gone into hiding or prepared themselves after reports of the Tripoli operation. “Of course people are worried about it in Benghazi,” Sheik Mohamed Abu Sidra, an influential Islamist leader there, said in an interview Sunday.
By noon, calls had begun for street protests against the raid or against the interim government for allowing it. Many Libyan Islamists already accuse their interim prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who previously lived in Geneva as part of the exiled opposition to Gadhafi, of collaborating too closely with the West.
But on social media, some Libyans, fearful of the influence al-Qaida or other militants might have in their country, were sympathetic to the U.S. military action, faulting their own interim authorities for failing to apprehend well-known terrorist suspects or otherwise maintain law and order.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated Sunday that the U.S. would not hesitate to take similar action in the future. “We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests,” he said, in the statement, “and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values.”
Despite his presence in Libya, Abu Anas was not believed to have played any role in the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the al-Qaida organization to like-minded militants in Libya.
His brother Nabih told The Associated Press that just after dawn prayers Saturday, three vehicles full of armed men approached Abu Anas’ home and surrounded him as he parked his car. The men smashed his window, seized his gun and sped away with him, the brother said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is representing President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali, thanked the U.S. military personnel who carried out the raids.
“We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror, and those members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide,” he said Sunday while visiting the port village of Benoa. “We will continue to try to bring people to justice in an appropriate way with the hopes that ultimately, these kinds of activities against everybody in the world will stop.”
The raid in Somalia was the most significant by U.S. troops in that lawless country since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaida mastermind, near the same coastal town four years ago. The town, Baraawe, a small port south of Mogadishu, is known as a gathering place for al-Shabab’s foreign fighters.
Witnesses described a firefight lasting more than an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “The attack was carried out by the American forces, and the Somali government was pre-informed.”
A spokesman for al-Shabab said Saturday that one of its fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault. U.S. officials initially reported that they had seized the Shabab leader, but later backed off that account.
A U.S. official said that no Americans had been killed or wounded and that the Americans “disengaged after inflicting some Shabab casualties.”
“We are not in a position to identify those casualties,” the official said. Though Hagel acknowledged the Somalia operation in a statement Sunday, he did not describe its outcome.
Asked about the raid, Somalia’s prime minister said Sunday that his government was working with international partners and neighboring states to combat al-Shabab, Reuters reported. “We have collaboration with the world and with neighboring countries in the battle against al-Shabab,” Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid said.