Gregory D Johnsen writes: Sunrise was still nearly an hour off when Nazih al-Ruqai climbed into his black Hyundai SUV outside a mosque in northern Tripoli and turned the key. The lanky 49-year-old had left the house barely 30 minutes earlier for a quick trip to the mosque on a Saturday. It was Oct. 5, 2013, and after more than two decades in exile, he had settled into a predictable existence of prayer and worship.
The homecoming hadn’t always been so smooth. Ruqai, who is better known in the jihadi world as Abu Anas al-Libi, was still feeling the effects of the hepatitis C he had contracted years earlier during a stint in an underground prison in Iran. Following overtures from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government, his wife and children had returned to Libya in 2010. But Libi stayed away, wary of the man he had once plotted to kill. Only when the Libyan uprisings started in early 2011 did he follow his family back to Libya. But by then it was already too late. His oldest son, Abd al-Rahman, the only one of his five children who had been born in Libya, was dead, shot while fighting for the capital.
After that, things moved in fits and starts. Qaddafi was killed weeks later in October 2011, and Libi eventually settled in Nufalayn, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in northeast Tripoli, alongside several members of his extended family. Life after Qaddafi was chaotic and messy — nothing really worked as the new government struggled to reboot after 42 years of dictatorship, often finding itself at the mercy of the heavily armed militias and tribes that had contributed to Qaddafi’s downfall.
Libi knew he was a wanted man. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade, following an indictment in 2000 for his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two years earlier. Along with Libi the indictment named 20 other individuals, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as defendants.
“He suspected that at any moment he would be killed,” his son later told The New York Times. Still, on that Saturday morning in early October, much of the danger seemed to have passed. Libi had been living in the open for nearly a year, attending prayers and settling local disputes, where his history as a fighter and knowledge of the Qur’an made him a respected arbiter. Neighbors called him simply “the shaykh,” a sign of respect in the conservative circles in which Libi still moved.
He had also taken steps to address his past. Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, Libi had sat down with Libya’s attorney general to discuss his indictment, according to one report. (The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests to confirm Libi’s meeting.) But mostly he just wanted to move on with his life. He had applied for his old job at the Ministry of Oil and Gas and he couldn’t stop talking about how much he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.
A trio of cars around 6 a.m. ended all of that.
Inside the family’s apartment, Libi’s wife heard the commotion. From a window she looked out over the beige wall that surrounded their building and into the street where several men had surrounded her husband, who was still in the driver’s seat of his black Hyundai.
“Get out,” the men shouted in Arabic. “Get out.” Then they smashed the window. Most of the men were masked, but she could see a few faces, she said later in Arabic interviews. They looked Libyan; they sounded Libyan. Some of them had guns; some didn’t, but they all moved quickly.
By the time the rest of the family made it to the street, all that was left was a single sandal and a few drops of blood.
Early that same morning, nearly 3,000 miles away in the seaside city of Baraawe on Somalia’s eastern coast, U.S. Navy SEALs crept through the darkness toward their target, which a local resident later described to me as a walled compound more than 100 yards inland. The Americans had been here before. Four years earlier, in September 2009, a contingent of Navy SEALs had ambushed a two-car convoy just outside of town. Flying low in helicopter gunships, the SEALs quickly disabled the cars and then touched down to collect the bodies.
This time the target — Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Abd al-Qadir, a young Kenyan of Somali descent better known as Ikrima — was stationary. The SEALs would have to go in and get him. Pre-raid intelligence suggested that the compound housed mostly fighters with few or no civilians present. Only 130 miles south of Mogadishu and what passed for the Somali government, Baraawe had been under the control of al-Shabaab, a fragmentary militant group, since 2009. Fighters came and went freely, as al-Shabaab implemented its own narrow version of Islamic law in the city.
Moving up the beach and into enemy territory, the SEALs needed the element of surprise. Through the trees and scrub brush ahead of them, most of the city was dark. Baraawe had only a few hours of electricity each day, usually from evening prayers until midnight. But al-Shabaab’s members lived separately and, along with some of the city’s wealthier residents, got around the shortages by running private generators. The plan that night took this into account, calling for the SEALs to jam internet signals, apparently in an attempt to cut off communication once the raid began. That would prove to be a mistake.
Inside the compound, some of the al-Shabaab fighters were up late and online. And, according to a report in the Toronto Star, when the internet suddenly went out in the middle of the night, they went to look for the source of the problem. At least one fighter stepped outside, and as he moved around in the darkness he spotted some of the SEALs.
The plan to knock the internet offline and isolate the fighters in the villa had backfired, effectively giving al-Shabaab an early warning that the SEALs were on their way. (In the days after the raid, al-Shabaab would arrest a handful of local men who were known to visit Western websites, accusing them of spying and aiding U.S. efforts.)
The firefight lasted several minutes, although residents reported hearing gunfire throughout the night as members of al-Shabaab discharged their weapons into the dark for hours after the Americans had withdrawn, empty-handed.
In the span of a few hours, the U.S. had launched a pair of raids — one successful and one not — 3,000 miles apart, in countries with which the nation was not at war. Hardly anyone noticed.
More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.
The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words. [Continue reading…]