Elite U.S. team questions seized al Qaeda leader on Navy ship

Reuters

By Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - An elite Americaninterrogation team is questioning the senior al Qaeda figure whowas seized by special operations forces in Libya and thenwhisked onto a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea, U.S.officials said on Monday.

Nazih al-Ragye, better known by the cover name Abu Anasal-Liby, is being held aboard the USS San Antonio, an amphibioustransport dock ship, the officials said.

He is being questioned by the U.S. High Value DetaineeInterrogation Group, an inter-agency unit created in 2009 andhoused in the FBI's National Security Branch. The groupspecializes in garnering information from terrorism suspects toprevent planned attacks.

A suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies inKenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians, Liby was snatchedon the streets of Tripoli on Saturday and quickly taken out ofthe North African country.

The successful capture of Liby and a failed weekend attemptby U.S. commandos to nab an Islamist leader in Somalia offeredevidence that the United States is still willing to use groundtroops to seize wanted militants.

But, analysts say, it is too early to tell whether suchoperations might eventually mean a diminished focus on the armeddrone strikes central to President Barack Obama'scounterterrorism policy.

The raid in Tripoli was carried out by the U.S. Army'sspecial operations Delta Force, an official said. Liby's son,Abdullah al Ragye, 19, told reporters that men pulled up in fourcars, drugged his father, dragged him from his vehicle and droveoff with him.

Liby is wanted by the FBI, which gives his age as 49 and hadoffered a $5 million reward for help in capturing him. He wasindicted in 2000 along with 20 other al Qaeda suspects includingOsama bin Laden and current global leader of the militantnetwork, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Liby's indictment was filed in New York, making that apossible venue for a civilian, rather than military, trial.

One U.S. official said he might face prosecution in NewYork, but the U.S. government has not announced its plans and nodecision has been made.

Liby's capture provoked a complaint about the "kidnap" fromthe Western-backed Libyan prime minister. U.S. officialsdeclined to say if the Libyan government was given advancenotice.

The White House defended the U.S. action. It marked the useof "rendition" - seizing a terrorism suspect in a foreigncountry without extradition proceedings, a practice heavilycriticized internationally under former President George W. Bushbut which Obama has reserved the right to use selectively.

"He is clearly al Qaeda and he is clearly wanted oncharges," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters ofLiby's case. "When we are able to, we prefer to capture someonelike Mr. al-Liby."

SOMALIA RAID

The capture in Tripoli came the same weekend that a NavySEAL team swooped into Somalia in an operation targeting asenior al Shabaab figure known as Ikrima, whom U.S. officialsdescribed as a foreign commander for the organization.

Obama, who ordered the SEAL raid that killed bin Laden in2011, approved both operations but they were planned separately. "It is a coincidence that they happened at the same time,"Carney said

The Somalia raid was designed to capture Ikrima, but theSEAL team broke off the mission when it became apparent thatcapturing him would not be feasible without a heavy risk ofcivilian casualties and to the SEAL team itself, officials said.

"If the intent was to kill him, we have other ways to dothat," said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.

After arriving in the town of Barawe, there was a firefightwith al Shabaab militants who U.S. officials say sustainedmultiple casualties. Ikrima's status was unclear.

As the situation escalated, the commander on the ground made decision to pull out.

Ikrima, whose real name is Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar, waslinked with now-dead al Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who had roles in the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi andin the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, U.S.officials said.

Despite his status within al Shabaab, Ikrima is not seen asparticularly close to al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, one U.S.official said.

Officials say the U.S. operation in Somalia was plannedweeks ago and was not in direct response to last month's alShabaab attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi that killed atleast 67.

A U.S. official, said the two commando operations did notrepresent a change in counterterrorism strategy - even thoughObama insisted in a speech in May that he wanted to scale backthe used of armed drones, a tactic that he has controversiallyused against militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The official said the two weekend raids were "capture"operations in places where it was considered practical, but that in riskier areas like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border dronestrikes remained the preferred option.

Micah Zenko, a counterterrorism expert at the Council onForeign Relations think tank, said that while special operationscan put American forces at risk, it offers the potential benefitof interrogating suspects for intelligence on future attacks.

"You'd take information over corpses any day of the week,"he said.

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