Twin raids in Libya and Somalia this weekend demonstrate that America’s fight against al Qaeda continues in jihadist hotspots around the globe. And the raid in Libya shows, once again, that al Qaeda’s “core” members are pushing the terrorist organization’s agenda far from Pakistan.
In Tripoli, a long wanted al Qaeda terrorist who helped plan the August 7, 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania was captured by American forces. The senior al Qaeda leader, known as Abu Anas al Libi, has served al Qaeda’s most senior leaders since the 1990s.
Much of the press’s reporting on al Libi has focused on his terrorist acts prior to 9/11. But al Libi’s role became a major concern once again after the revolution that swept Muammar Qaddafi from power.
In August 2012, the research division of the Library of Congress and the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO) released a report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) detailing al Qaeda’s plan for Qaddafi’s former country.
Abu Anas al Libi was identified as a key player in this plan.
AQSL has “issued strategic guidance to followers in Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the Libyan rebellion,” the report reads. AQSL ordered its followers to “gather weapons,” “establish training camps,” “build a network in secret,” “establish an Islamic state,” and “institute sharia” law in Libya.
Al Libi is described in the report as the “builder of al Qaeda's network in Libya.” He served as the key liaison between AQSL and others inside Libya.
Al Libi is “most likely involved in al Qaeda strategic planning and coordination between AQSL and Libyan Islamist militias who adhere to al Qaeda's ideology,” the report notes.
“Reporting indicates that intense communications from AQSL are conducted through Abu Anas al Libi, who is believed to be an intermediary between [Ayman al] Zawahiri and jihadists in Libya,” the report’s authors found.
The public discourse, especially in the U.S., is often focused on al Qaeda’s immediate threat to Western interests. This is, in many ways, understandable. But al Libi’s role went far beyond the targeting of American embassies or other Western interests.
The authors of “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile” identified key personalities and al Qaeda-linked militias, including Ansar al Sharia, which are working to acquire territory. In Benghazi, the scene of a terrorist attack that killed four Americans on September 11, 2012, Ansar al Sharia is firmly entrenched. The group even controls security checkpoints. Elsewhere in Libya the situation is much the same. In Sirte and Derna, for example, Ansar al Sharia and its al Qaeda-linked allies have become dominant players.
In other words, there are good reasons to think that the plan AQSL set in motion for Libya is coming to fruition. And there are also good reasons to suspect that Anas al Libi, Zawahiri’s man in Tripoli, helped oversee the operation.
Now that he is in custody, al Libi should be questioned about all of this, from his role plotting terrorist attacks to al Qaeda’s sinister designs on Libya. Al Libi is connected to a constellation of al Qaeda actors, and American officials should explore all of his possible ties.
Here are some of the key questions that counterterrorism officials and interested parties on the Hill should want answered:
How often has al Libi been in contact with Zawahiri, or other senior members of al Qaeda in Pakistan or elsewhere? What has been the nature of al Libi’s contacts with Zawahiri?
Were any of al Libi’s computers or other electronic media recovered during the raid? If so, what intelligence concerning al Libi’s ongoing al Qaeda activities can be found in his files?
What role, if any, did al Libi play in the Benghazi terrorist attack?
What was al Libi’s relationship with Ansar al Sharia Libya, the group involved in the assault in Benghazi? And what does he know about Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, the sister organization that stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012?
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda affiliate, has established camps in Libya. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a longtime AQIM commander, set up his own al Qaeda organization in December 2012 and has also operated inside Libya. Some of the Benghazi attackers were in contact with Belmokhtar. What does al Libi know about AQIM’s and Belmokhtar’s operations?
Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, an Egyptian who served as part of Zawahiri’s security detail in the 1990s, set up training camps inside Libya in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. Some of Jamal’s trainees reportedly took part in the attack in Benghazi. Jamal, who has since been detained in Egypt, was in direct contact with Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012. What does al Libi know about Jamal’s activities?
Another longtime al Qaeda operative, Faraj al Chalabi, was detained in Libya after returning from Pakistan. Chalabi is suspected of playing a role in the Benghazi assault. According to senior intelligence officials, Chalabi may have delivered intelligence from the U.S. diplomatic mission to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
What was al Libi’s relationship with Chalabi and what does he know about Chalabi’s putative role in the assault in Benghazi?
Still another al Qaeda operative, Abd al Baset Azzouz, has worked closely with al Libi. Azzouz was identified as al Libi’s key ally inside Libya by the authors of “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile.” Azzouz was sent to Libya by Zawahiri and “has been operating at least one training center.” Azzouz “sent some of his estimated 300 men...to make contact with other militant Islamist groups farther west.”
Naturally, Azzouz’s whereabouts and current job description are important avenues to explore in al Libi’s questioning.
These are just some of al Libi’s connections to al Qaeda’s terror network in Libya and beyond that are worth investigating.
Abu Anas al Libi was one of the brightest stars in a constellation of al Qaeda-linked actors inside Libya.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.