TRIPOLI, Libya — A day after US commandos carried out raids in two African countries aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects, Libya’s interim government demanded an explanation from Washington on Sunday 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, US 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 Qaeda, on the streets of Tripoli. About 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 US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and had a $5 million bounty on his head.
He is being interrogated while in military custody on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea, officials said. He is expected eventually to be sent to New York for criminal prosecution.
Abu Anas 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 him 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.
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 US Embassy in Libya, 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 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 US 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 Khadafy’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 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 demand appeared to contradict the statements of US 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 US Special Operations forces into Libya to capture wanted terrorists or suspects in the deadly attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012.
The US 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 US officials have 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 US 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.
There were calls Sunday 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 Khadafy, of collaborating too closely with the West.
But on social media, some Libyans, fearful of the influence Al Qaeda or other militants might have in their country, were sympathetic to the US military action, faulting their interim authorities for failing to apprehend well-known terrorist suspects or otherwise maintain law and order.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated Sunday that the United States 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.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is representing President Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, thanked the US 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 Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide,” he said Sunday while visiting the port village of Benoa.