The US capture of a suspected al Qaeda chief from his own home in Libya once again puts the focus on the legality of Obama's version of the "war on terror." The Libyan government's role is also ambiguous.
Reports of the capture of wanted al Qaeda chief Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli remain conflicting. The Libyan government denies involvement and even fore-knowledge of the early morning commando raid, but eye-witness accounts (from al-Liby's relatives) insist that Libyan soldiers were also involved. Al-Liby's son Abdullah told the country's Nabir TV station, "The people who took my father were Libyan, not Americans - they spoke with Tripoli accents."
The New York Times reported on Sunday (06.10.2013) that al-Liby was now in military custody on a US warship in the Mediterranean Sea, being interrogated without recourse to a lawyer. That once again throws a spotlight on the legality of the covert special forces operations that have become feature of President Barack Obama's version of the "war on terror."
Wanted for 15 years
The case of Al-Liby, who featured on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists - with a $5-million (3.7-million-euro) bounty - has been compared to that of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, who was seized in 2011 and interrogated on a US ship for two months without being told his rights.
Al-Liby, thought to be a computer specialist who used to live in the UK in the 1990s, has effectively been on the run for 15 years. He was wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, where over 220 were killed.
Raffaello Pantucci, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), thinks it's interesting that the US decided to target al-Liby now. "There's been a sense that he's been in Libya for some time," he told DW. "The decision to pick him up was I think a demonstration of, one, a sense of growing concern about Libya, but two, that you don't forget. You're showing you have a long arm, and a long memory."
Kerry defends 'kidnapping'
The seizing of al-Liby, which Tripoli described as a "kidnapping," was called "appropriate and legal" by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday. "I hope the perception in the world is that people who commit acts of terror and who have been appropriately indicted by courts of law, by the legal process, will know that the United States of America is going to do anything in its power that is legal and appropriate in order to enforce the law and to protect our security," Kerry said at a press conference in Indonesia.
Pentagon spokesman George Little backed up Kerry, saying that al-Liby was "currently lawfully detained by the US military in a secure location outside of Libya."
But Richard Reeve, global security analyst at the Oxford Research Group, doubts whether there is a legal justification - at least under international law. "Kerry's justification, calling it a legal act, specifically referring to the use of military force act of September 2011, is interesting," he told DW. "That is American domestic legislation authorizing the use of military force to capture supposed terrorists outside the US, without reference to US Congress. That doesn't give the US any rights under international law to intervene in other countries or take suspects without due process."
But Pantucci believes al-Liby's case is different to that of other terror suspects being held by the US. "The Obama administration has realized it's got itself into a bind with some of these prosecutions," he said. "They've been unable to close down Guantanamo, they've been unable to bring them to court. With al-Liby, they have a crime they want to try him for - that's justice in this situation. This is a case they've had for a long time. There's been a lot of investigation of the '98 embassy bombings. The indictments are very substantial. They have a case they're trying him for, and it's quite a strong case, frankly."
Libya's ambiguous position
The Libyan government's involvement also appears confusing - did it know of the raid before hand or not? Kerry's eluded the question of Tripoli's role by saying merely, "We consult regularly with the Libyan government on a range of security and counterterrorism issues but we don't get into the specifics of our communication with foreign governments on any kind of operation of this kind."
"One has to interpret the reaction of the Libyan and Pakistani authorities on this kind of thing liberally," said Reeve. "Are they really opposed to this kind of action, are they really participating?"
The problem, argued Reeve, is that the Libyan government is itself run by fractured and possibly opposing forces. "The government is so fragile - its hold on security forces and territory within Libya is so tenuous it's difficult to know who one would approach to have that security clearance," he said. "It could be that one part of the government is working with the Americans, while another part is not. There is also a very difficult situation between secularists and Westernists, Islamists within the government and society, tribal groups."
Pantucci thinks the Tripoli's reaction is straightforward, and similar to that of the Pakistani government following the killing of Osama bin Laden. "I think the Libyan government's anger is perfectly understandable, because they weren't told about it until after the fact," he said. "You've got foreign forces coming in, picking people up and wandering off again. It's not exactly a confidence-builder for your capacity within your own state."