NEW YORK — The terrorism suspect who had been undergoing interrogation on a Navy ship after his recent capture in Libya was taken to New York over the weekend and was to be presented before a federal judicial officer Tuesday, officials said.
The decision to bring the suspect, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, who is known as Abu Anas al-Liby, to New York came after he stopped eating and drinking aboard the USS San Antonio, exacerbating his chronic health conditions, several officials said. Abu Anas’s wife has said that her husband has a severe case of hepatitis C.
Abu Anas, 49, was formally arrested and taken into Justice Department custody after he left the San Antonio and before he arrived in the United States late Saturday, officials said. Upon his arrival, he was taken to a medical facility, they said, and his condition improved.
In 2000, Abu Anas was indicted in Manhattan on charges that he conspired with Osama bin Laden in plots to attack US forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people.
His capture this month was seen as a potential intelligence coup because he had been on the run for years and so would, presumably, possess information about Al Qaeda from its earliest days through its contemporary, more scattered state.
Alleged Al Qaeda computer expert
Officials said that Abu Anas had been cooperating with the interrogation since his capture on Oct. 5 and that the decision to move him into the criminal justice system would not prevent prosecutors from seeking additional cooperation. But when he appears in US District Court on Tuesday, he will be appointed a lawyer, through whom the government will have to work if it wants to communicate further with him.
Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, revealed Abu Anas’s arrival in Manhattan in a brief statement Monday.
Prosecutors under Bharara also wrote to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has been overseeing the conspiracy cases in which Abu Anas and other terrorism defendants have been charged, notifying him of the arrest and of Abu Anas’s coming court appearance.
In a separate counterterrorism case Monday, British law enforcement agencies said they averted a plot to orchestrate a large-scale terror attack similar to the assault on Kenya’s Westgate mall, the Associated Press reported. Police were questioning four men in their 20s on suspicion of terrorism after they were detained Sunday in raids led by intelligence agencies.
A British security official said the men were planning a shooting spree akin to the Westgate attack in Nairobi, in which at least 67 people died. It was not clear how advanced the planning was, but an attack was not imminent, the official said.
Metropolitan Police did not identify the suspects but said they were all British nationals with roots in Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria, and Azerbaijan.
The developments regarding Abu Anas led to debate on Monday about where terrorism cases are best handled.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the decision to try Abu Anas in the civilian court system, rather than send him to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, showed that “the United States acts out of strength and not out of fear.”
“We are not afraid of terrorists, nor are we afraid to bring them to justice in our courts,” Leahy said. “The indefinite detention of al-Liby at Guantánamo would have been unnecessary and unwise.”
Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he did not doubt the government’s explanation of the events involving a prized Al Qaeda suspect and that it underscored his criticism of the Obama administration for not transferring Abu Anas to Guantánamo immediately after he was seized.
King said in a telephone interview that Abu Anas’s move to a medical facility because of “some preexisting condition” dispelled any notion that he had been injured in the raid in which he was captured in Tripoli, Libya, or during his interrogation aboard the San Antonio.
But if his transfer into civilian custody means that Abu Anas’s cooperation will end, King said, that would amount to a major lost opportunity to obtain valuable intelligence.
“He was close to the top and an integral part of the Al Qaeda operation,” King said. “After so much effort to take him alive, this is very unfortunate.”
Details of the interrogation and of Abu Anas’s statements are unknown. At first, when he was taken aboard the San Antonio, he ate and drank the provisions that were given to him, officials said. But as his health worsened in recent days, military doctors recommended that he be taken to a land-based facility for better treatment.
Abu Anas’s 20-year-old son, Abdullah, said in an interview the day after Abu Anas was captured that he was concerned his father was sick.
Known as one of Al Qaeda’s early computer experts, Abu Anas is believed to have used an early-generation Apple computer to assemble surveillance photographs in Kenya before a bombing there at the embassy.