An accused Al Qaeda operative seized by U.S. commandos in Libya over the weekend is being interrogated while in military custody on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea and is expected eventually to be sent to New York for criminal prosecution, officials said.
The fugitive, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, is seen as a potential intelligence gold mine, possessing perhaps two decades of information about Al Qaeda, from the group’s early days under Osama bin Laden in Sudan to its more scattered fragments today.
The decision to hold Abu Anas, 49, and question him for intelligence purposes without a lawyer present follows a pattern used successfully by the Obama administration with other high-value terrorist suspects, most prominently in the case of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a former military commander with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. Warsame was captured in 2011 by the U.S. military in the Gulf of Aden and interrogated aboard a Navy ship for about two months without being advised of his rights or provided a lawyer.
After a break of several days, Warsame was advised of his rights, waived them, was questioned for about a week by law enforcement agents, and was sent to Manhattan for prosecution.
“Warsame is the model for this guy,” said one U.S. security official, referring both to the questioning of Abu Anas for what he knows and the eventual prosecution.
Warsame later pleaded guilty and has been cooperating with the government, providing intelligence information about his co-conspirators, who included “high-level international terrorist operatives,” federal prosecutors have said in court papers.
Abu Anas is being held aboard the U.S.S. San Antonio, a vessel brought in specifically for this mission, officials said.
Abu Anas, 49, who was born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, has been indicted in Manhattan on charges of conspiring with bin Laden in plots to attack U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia, as well as in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people.
He has been described as an Al Qaeda computer expert and helped to conduct surveillance of the embassy in Nairobi, according to evidence in trials stemming from the bombings. In investigating the attacks, the authorities recovered an Al Qaeda terrorism manual in Abu Anas’ residence in Manchester, England.
The manual is a detailed treatise on how to carry out terrorist missions. It focuses on forged documents, safe houses, surveillance, assassinations, codes and interrogation techniques. It also cites “blasting and destroying the embassies and attacking vital economic centers,” and it endorses the use of explosives in attacks, saying they “strike the enemy with sheer terror and fright.”
It is not known if Abu Anas wrote the manual, but federal prosecutors introduced it as evidence in the 2001 trial of four operatives convicted in the bombings conspiracy, and in the prosecution of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be tried in the federal system.
The manual was also used in a 2006 trial in Virginia over whether to impose the death penalty on Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 plot. (He received a life sentence.)
The Defense Department, in a statement issued Sunday, said Abu Anas was “currently lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location outside of Libya.”
The statement suggested that the authorities would first interrogate him for intelligence purposes before moving in the direction of a criminal prosecution.
“Wherever possible,” the Defense Department said, “our first priority is and always has been to apprehend terrorist suspects, and to preserve the opportunity to elicit valuable intelligence that can help us protect the American people.”
The seizure of Abu Anas was carried out by U.S. troops assisted by FBI and CIA agents. Navy SEALs, meanwhile, carried out a raid on the Somali coast, trying without success to capture a senior leader of al-Shabab, the group that carried out the massacre at the Nairobi shopping mall two weeks ago, which killed at least 60 people.
Another U.S. official emphasized that the commando raids in Libya and Somalia this weekend were both designed to capture the intended targets, not to kill them with Predator drone missiles, the signature counterterrorism strike of the Obama administration.
“If we can, capturing terrorists provides valuable intelligence that we can’t get if we kill them,” said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing interrogation.
Abu Anas is one of about two dozen defendants charged in federal court in Manhattan in a series of indictments that began in 1998, when bin Laden was charged, and which expanded over the years to add other operatives. With Abu Anas’ capture, only a handful of those operatives are believed to remain alive and at large, most prominently Ayman al Zawahiri, the deputy to bin Laden who succeeded the Al Qaeda leader after he was killed in a 2011 U.S. operation.
One of bin Laden’s former close aides, a Sudanese named Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl who defected from the group in the mid-1990s and became a cooperating witness for the U.S. government, testified in 2001 that Abu Anas was a computer engineer.
“He run our computers,” the witness, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, testified in the 2001 trial.
Abu Anas was also part of a small team of Al Qaeda operatives that in the early 1990s traveled to Nairobi and carried out surveillance of the U.S. Embassy and other potential bomb targets, according to the indictment and other evidence.
The photographs, diagrams and surveillance report from the Nairobi mission were ultimately reviewed by bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, the government has said.
“Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber,” another member of the surveillance team, Ali A. Mohamed, said in federal court when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2000.
News of Abu Anas’ capture was welcomed by family members of victims.
“Of course, our hearts are still very much tied to that day,” said Edith Bartley, whose father, Julian L. Bartley Sr., the consul general, and brother, Julian L. Bartley Jr., a college student working as an intern, were both killed in attack in Nairobi.
Bartley said her mother, Sue, traveled regularly to New York from the Washington area to attend the Ghailani trial in 2010, and she said they would both attend any trial involving Abu Anas.
“It’s a reminder to the courts and to others involved that the person who’s on trial impacted real people, people who were serving their country abroad,” she said.