Sons of Qaida leader Abu Anas al-Liby, who was seized by US forces on Sunday, show reporters the car from which their father was taken near Tripoli on Monday. (AFP)
Washington, Oct. 7: Four vans with tinted windows converged in a comfortable Tripoli neighbourhood as a leader of al Qaida returned home on Saturday from early morning prayers.
As his wife watched with alarm from a window, the men — armed with silencer-equipped weapons, some masked and some not — smashed his car window. Within moments, they were gone, taking with them one of America’s most wanted terror suspects.
Around the same time about 4,828km away, highly trained commandos from the same Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden slipped out of the sea and stormed into a villa in Somalia to capture another man high on America’s target list. Met by a hail of bullets and then a lengthy gunfight, they withdrew without their quarry from a country best known to many Americans as the scene of Black Hawk Down.
The latest chapter in President Obama’s efforts to combat al Qaida and its loose affiliates turned out to be a tale of two raids, one that succeeded and one that did not. The seizure of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, from outside his home in Tripoli, where he was living largely in the open, represented a long-sought victory for the US.
But the failure of the Somalia operation underscored the limits of America’s power even for one of its most storied military units.
Thanks in part to the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan by SEAL Team Six in 2011, many Americans have become accustomed to the triumphs of Special Forces and see them as a substitute for the larger-scale military operations that characterised Iraq and Afghanistan for so many years.
The disparate results in two corners of North Africa over the weekend served as a reminder of the uncertainties and dangers inherent in any form of warfare.
Obama, who authorised both raids, made no comment about them yesterday. But administration officials acknowledged that the Somalia operation went awry. “It did not achieve the objective,” said one official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. “It achieved other things in the sense that these guys are now trying to figure out what happened, trying to figure out who dimed out who, and there’s a certain amount of confusion there.”
Military veterans said that the contrasting results reflected the challenges of counterterrorism. “It’s hard to think of a more complex mission than an amphibious raid into strongly held enemy territory,” said Gen. Carter F. Ham, the retired head of the military’s Africa Command, who noted that he had not been briefed on the details of the operation.
While only one of the two targets was captured, no Americans were hurt. “The reality is that there’s no such thing as 100 per cent success except in the movies,” said a defence official who asked not to be named. “This was a better-than-average day.”
The nearly simultaneous raids came at a time when Obama is trying to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and shift the nation’s war against terrorists away from the prolific use of drone strikes that has characterised his presidency. The twin operations on the African coast underscored the evolving geography of the terror threat away from its West Asia and South Asian epicentres.
They also may have set another precedent as the US made clear it had little trust in Libya’s security services. “This appears to be the first unilateral operation under military authorities to capture someone outside of war zones or ungoverned places like Somalia,” said Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff at the Pentagon and CIA under Obama.