Officials in France, the United States and the United Kingdom, along with the United Nations Secretary-General, have condemned the abduction of Libya’s Prime Minister. Shortly after his release, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused a “political party” of organizing his brief abduction, which was carried out by armed gunmen during the early morning hours on Thursday. The latest incident to stun Libya has further reflected the weakness of the country’s government.
During the early morning hours on Thursday, Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a luxury hotel, the Corinthia, in downtown Tripoli and held for several hours by armed militiamen. Photographs depicted Mr. Zeidan being surrounded by more than 100 armed men and being led away. There were no reports of violence during his capture. Sources have indicated that the Prime Minister was abducted with two of his guards, who were beaten and later released. Shortly after his abduction, an employee of the hotel where Mr. Zeidan was living in indicated that a “large number of armed men” had entered the building. Although a statement later released by the Libyan government indicated that Mr. Zeidan had been taken “to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group” of men believed to be former rebels, eye witness accounts reported that the Prime Minister was held at a police station south of the capital and that his captors had decided to release him after armed residents surrounded the building and demanded that he be released.
Shortly after his release later on Thursday, Mr. Zeidan met with his minister and members of the General National Congress (GNC), which is Libya’s highest political authority. The Prime Minister appeared to be in good health as he arrived at government headquarters later on Thursday. He was seen waving to waiting well-wishers as he climbed out of an armored car. Reports have indicated that the Prime Minister has accused a “political party” of organizing his brief abduction. In comments that were later broadcast by state television as he left a cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister indicated that “it’s a political party which wants to overthrow the government by any means,” adding that “in the coming days, I will give more information on who this political party is that organized by kidnapping.” While the Prime Minister has praised the armed groups that came to rescue him, he has called for calm, stating that “…this problem will be resolved with reason and wisdom” and without any “escalation.” His comments reflect a need for ease as tensions have been rising in Libya ever since US commandos carried out a secretive military operation over the past weekend.
While the motive of the abduction remains unclear, some officials have indicated that it appeared to be in retaliation for the US special forces raid that seized a Libyan al-Qaeda suspect off the streets of Tripoli. Some militias throughout the country have been angered by last Saturday’s US commando raid to capture Anas al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda suspect, who has since been taken away to a warship in the mediterranean where US officials are questioning him about his supposed links to al-Qaeda. In turn, the abduction of Mr. Zeidan has aptly demonstrated the weakness of Libya’s government, which has had difficulties inserting its control amongst a number of powerful militias. Militants were angered by the US capture of the suspected militant and have accused the government of either colluding in, or allowing the raid to occur. Furthermore, confusion pertaining to the Prime Minister’s kidnapping was increased after varying reports indicated that he had been arrested. In the absence of an affective police force or military in Libya, many of the militias in the country are under the pay of either the defence or interior ministries however their allegiance and who really controls them is in doubt.
Meanwhile international officials have condemned the kidnapping of Libya’s Prime Minster. The United States has denounced the kidnapping, with US Secretary of State John Kerry calling the act “thuggery.” The Secretary of State also noted that “today’s events only underscore the need to work with Prime Minister Zeidan and with all of Libya’s friends and allies to help bolster its capacity with greater speed and greater success,” adding that there could be “no place for this kind of violence in the new Libya.” A statement released by the UN on behalf of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged all Libyans to respect the rule of law, noting that “the secretary-general calls on all Libyan parties and the Libyan people to form consensus around national priorities and work towards building a strong, stable country, respectful of the rule of law and the protection of human rights.” officials in France and the UK also pledged swift support for Mr. Zeidan. French President Francois Hollande stated that he stood ready to strengthen ties with Libya in order to tackle the militants. Meanwhile a spokesman for David Cameron indicated that the UK’s prime Minister had spoken to a “calm and measured” Ali Zeidan after his release and had promised to help build a “stable, free, peaceful and prosperous” Libya.
On Monday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture of an alleged al-Qaeda leader who was apprehended on Saturday during two raids that were carried out by US commandos in Libya and Somalia. The US Secretary of State has indicated that the operations in Libya and Somalia showed that the US would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
On Saturday, the Pentagon confirmed that US commandos captured an alleged al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Libi, who has been suspected of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. His capture was confirmed by his son, Abdullah al-Raghie, who stated that his father was seized by masked gunmen in Tripoli early on Saturday as he was parking outside his house after returning from morning prayers. He has claimed that the Libyan government was implicated in his father’s disappearance, however officials in Tripoli have denied any involvement.
Amidst calls by officials in Libya on Sunday to receive an explanation pertaining to the special forces raid on its territory, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture, stating on Monday that Anas al-Libi was a “legal and appropriate target.” Speaking to the media on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, the Secretary of State further noted that “with respect to Anas al-Libi, he is a key al-Qaeda figure, and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the US military.” When questioned whether the United States had informed Libya prior to the raid, Kerry refused to confirm or deny, stating only that “we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government on any kind of operation of this kind.” The operation to capture Libi has drawn fury from the Libyan government, which has since stated that the operation was unauthorized and that Libi had been kidnapped. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s office has also stated that the Prime Minister has requested full clarification on the raid, stressing that Libya was “keen on prosecuting any Libyan citizen inside Libya.”
According to sources, Anas al-Libi, 49 and whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, was married with a daughter and three sons, one of whom was killed in a battle with pro-Kadhafi forces when the rebels entered Tripoli in October 2011. Libi, a computer specialist, left Libya during the early 1990’s when Kadhafi was cracking down on Islamist groups. During that time, Libi joined Bin Laden’s terror organization in Sudan and would later follow the group to Afghanistan before securing political asylum in Britain in 2000. He is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the 1998 US embassy attacks, which killed more than 200 people in Kenya and Tanzania. On 7 August 1998, a car bomb explosion outside the American embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people, and wounded 5,000. Almost simultaneously, a truck laden with explosives detonated outside the US mission in Tanzania, killed 11 people and leaving another 70 wounded. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for both attacks. When a US court indicted him in connection with the bombings, he fled to Pakistan. Sources have indicated that he returned to Libya shortly after the outbreak of the revolt against Kadhafi, and probably would have fought against the rebels who ousted the longtime dictator.
Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade with a US $5 million (£3.1 m) bounty on his head. The raid to capture him came as Western Intelligence agencies increasingly feared that he had been tasked with forming an al-Qaeda network in Libya. According to a US official, shortly after the raid, Libi was taken to a US Navy warship in the region, where he was being questioned. This was confirmed by the Pentagon, which stated that he was being “lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location” outside Libya. The operation in Tripoli ended a thirteen-year manhunt for Libi who was one of the last remaining high-level operatives from the core terror network that was established by bin Laden in the 1990‘s. His arrest paves the way for his extradition to New York to face trial.
With authorities and officials in Libya insisting that they were unaware of the US operation, the capture of the senior al-Qaeda militant is definitely an embarrassment for the fledgling government and could result in outrage amongst the country’s Islamist extremists. While authorities in Libya have been struggling to assert control over the countless numbers of militias that emerged during the 2011 uprising against Moamer Kadhafi, many militias have refused to disarm and effectively now control large portions of the country. Some of the militias in question include hardline Islamists who have accused the post-Kadhafi government of being too close to the West. In turn, reactions to his capture in Libya have been mixed, effectively demonstrating the divide in the country amongst Islamists and their secular opponents.
While the operation in Libya achieved its objective, it remains unclear whether the raid on a beachfront villa in southern Somalia was a success.
On Saturday, US commandos carried out an operation to capture one of the leaders of al-Shabaab however unconfirmed reports have indicated that SEAL commandos were forced to withdraw before confirming the kill. Reports have indicated that the mission was aborted after the commandos encountered fierce resistance from al-Shabaab fighters. The operation, which was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, occured Barawe, which is located 180 kilometers (110 miles) south of the capital city of Mogadishu. A US official has identified the militant as Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin, however Washington has yet to formally name the intended target. When asked on Sunday as to whether officials in Somalia had been aware of the raid, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid stated that “our co-operation with international partners on fighting against terrorism is not a secret.”
In response to the raid, an al-Shabaab military operations spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a fighter was killed during the raid. Al-Shabaab’s commander in the southern Somali port of Barawe, Mohamed Abu Suleiman, also noted that “the enemy of Allah tried to surprise the mujahedeen commanders with a night attack using a military helicopter, but they were taught a lesson and they have failed.” Residents of Barawe reported they were woken by heavy gunfire before dawn prayers and some of them saw commandos, presumed to be from a Western nation, rappelling from a helicopter and attempting to storm a house belonging to a senior al-Shabaab commander. Local media has also reported that two helicopters were involved in the raid. By Saturday morning, residents reported that al-Shabaab militants were heavily deployed on the streets of the town.
The raid comes shortly after al-Shabaab confirmed that it had carried out last month’s attack on the Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, leaving at least sixty-seven people dead. Sources have indicated that while Ikrimah was not linked to that attack, the raid has prompted fears that the target could be planning a similar assault on other Western targets in the region.
Multiple nations currently operation Special Forces in the wider Horn of Africa region, and many have carried out similar missions in the past. In recent years, both US and French Special Forces have carried out raids on coastal targets in Somalia. Last year, US Navy Seals flying at least six military helicopters carried out an operation to rescue two aid workers held by pirates in northern Somalia. Washington has also used drones in Somalia to support the local government and African Union (AU) forces in their battle against al-Shabaab militants. And earlier this year, France carried out an unsuccessful raid to free a French intelligence agent. On 12 January, elite French forces carried out an overnight operation, involving some fifty troops and at least five helicopters, in southern Somalia. Two French commandos were killed and al-Shabaab later reported that it had killed the agent. With minimal information being released pertaining to Saturday’s raid, it currently remains unclear whether either of these countries was involved. Furthermore, Western navies are present in the region, patrolling the seas off Somalia, which has been beset by conflict for more than two decades. While they have been tasked with fighting piracy, in 2009, US Navy commandos attacked and killed an al-Qaeda leader, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Nabhan, during a daylight raid on Barawe.
Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.
Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks. The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.” In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.” It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.” The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail. On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan. At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack. Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks. Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq: Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north. Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.
US Extends Embassy Closure
Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat. After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday. On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat. With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August. Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday. African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures. The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.
It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed. Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday. The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave. Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.
The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy. While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear. Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.
The recent suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have demonstrated how the Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations that are located within the Sahara. What does this mean for France? The country and its troops may be tied down in the region for years to come. In turn, regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for the French government and its Western allies as a lack of greater cooperation amongst the countries located in the Sahara is only aiding the militants in regrouping in quieter parts of the vast desert. One of these quieter territories is the lawless regions of southern Libya, which security officials have indicated is becoming the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from their strongholds in northern Mali earlier this year.
According to a senior adviser to Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore, “the south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before.” This remark comes just days after Niger announced that last week’s suicide raids, which killed twenty-five people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva, were launched from Libya. Libya however has denied these allegations.
Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly controlled south – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Algeria and Niger – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe. However the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a flood of weapons and ammunition being brought into the Sahara. Tuareg separatists used them in order to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law until French forces arrived. In turn, the Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. It is known that former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had purchased weapons there after Gaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, in which 37 foreigners died.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades in order to police its southern border region, where at least one hundred people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security in the region may only encourage Islamist militants to set up permanent camps and weapons stores in the area. Since the attack on Areva, France has urged regional powers to cooperate in order to tackle the threat that is coming from Libya as the country relies on Niger for one fifth of the uranium in order to power its nuclear reactors. Niger’s long border with Mali, tough line on tackling militants and its role as a supplier of uranium to France have long made the country a target. Since the attacks, US troops have begun to train the army while the government in Niamey has stepped up its security in the northern regions of the country, where French Special Forces went in earlier this year in order to protect the mines. Four French mine workers who were taken hostage in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
While Paris is keen on decreasing its troop numbers in the region, the persistent arguing and mistrust amongst the regional powers continues to be an issues, with President Francois Hollande admitting last week that French forces may be used elsewhere in the Sahel. European governments, alarmed with the developments, also approved a 110-man mission this week that will focus on improving border security by training Libyan police and security forces.
In a region that mainly comprises of vast desert regions, borders often have little meaning, and militants can blend in with nomads. Consequently hunting Islamist militants requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together. Officials in the United States have indicated that efforts to tackle the spreading influence of al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the Sahara has been beset by long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria, coupled with a lack of trust and communication amongst the regional capitals.
Algeria, the Sahara’s main military power, has long bristled at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly one led by its former colonial ruler, France. Although the Algerian government allowed French warplanes operating in Mali to fly over its territory, Malian officials have indicated that Algeria should be more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distance. The northern Malian town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles) from the border of southern Libya.
Mauritania also needs to place more of an effort on this issue. This is mainly due to the country’s strategic location on the western edge of the Sahara coupled with a high number of its citizens who are senior militants and with its experience in tackling Islamist militants at home.
The rapidly changing face of Islamist militancy also creates problems for the local governments. For years, al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), relied largely on Algerians. However last year, the militant group was composed of gunmen from across northern Africa along with citizens from West Africa – militants who are more experienced and have a greater knowledge of the territory.
In Mali, drone surveillance and on the ground counter-terrorism teams have put a lot of effort in order to suppress the militants. Suicide attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves. According to officials in France, around 600 Islamists have been killed since Operation Serval was launched in January. In turn, about 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were seized in operations that scoured the desert regions and mountain bases. This disrupted arms and fuel dumps that militants had prepared during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali. According to a French officer in Mali, “they don’t seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks in Mali anymore…we assume that they will try and regroup but it will take time for them and it is risky as they know we are watching.” The French campaign in Mali has been backed by a British spy plane while the US has drones operating from Niger alongside an established monitoring base in Burkina Faso. But while Islamist militants once traveled in large convoys, they have since adapted and are keeping a low provide. A trend which will likely be seen over the next few years, as militants continue to adapt themselves to nor only the territory, but to the techniques that the West uses in order to track them down.