An accused al-Qaida 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-Liby, is seen as a potential intelligence gold mine, possessing perhaps two decades of information about al-Qaida, 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.
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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 USS San Antonio, a vessel brought in specifically for this mission, officials said.
Abu Anas, 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 Guantánamo 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 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 Kenyan of Somali origin known as Ikrimah, one of al-Shabab’s top planners for attacks beyond its base in Somalia.
Though Ikrimah had not been tied directly to al-Shabab’s deadly assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi last month that killed at least 60 people, fears of a similar attack against Western targets broke a deadlock among officials in Washington over whether to conduct the raid.
Special-operations commanders were in favor, pushing for a more aggressive response to the rising threat from the group in Somalia, while administration officials were nervous about incurring U.S. military casualties.
As it turned out, there were none, according to a U.S. official — but Ikrimah was not captured, and there is as yet no evidence he was killed in the firefight that broke out on the Somali coast in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Ikrimah is an associate of two al-Qaida operatives who were involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and an airline in Mombasa.
SEAL Team 6, the Navy commando unit that killed the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, had been dispatched to try to apprehend him.
A 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 was also part of a small team of al-Qaida 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.