The United States announced yesterday that Libyan terror suspect Abu Anas al-Liby (also known as Nazih al-Ragye) has been transferred to the United States after being held and interrogated aboard a U.S. Navy ship since his capture in Tripoli on October 5th. He is being held as a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 224 civilians. A criminal indictment was filed against him in 2001 for his suspected involvement in the embassy bombings, but he has evaded capture for over a decade.
After al-Liby’s capture, he was immediately transferred from Tripoli to a Naval ship in the Mediterranean, where U.S. sources speculated he may be held for weeks, or even months, as he was questioned by the U.S.’s High Value Target Interrogation Group (“HIG”). Surprisingly, al-Liby was transferred to the U.S. yesterday afternoon, just nine days after his capture. The relevant question on everyone’s mind remains, “What’s the rush?” Why did the interrogation of Al-Ragye end so quickly when there are alleged terrorists in Guantanamo who have been detained (and subsequently interrogated) for over a decade?
It was released earlier this week that al-Liby was transferred for medical reasons, as he has been living with Hepatitis C and had refused to eat or drink while aboard the ship. This answer, however, seems like a thinly veiled attempt to conceal the U.S.’s true intentions. Al-Ragye has been free for 15 years since his alleged terrorist acts. If the U.S. was able to locate Osama Bin Laden in a remote complex in Pakistan, surely it would not have been impossible to capture al-Liby prior to two weeks ago.
A major Naval vessel was more than likely equipped to deal with al-Liby’s medical issues. This seems, instead, like an attempt to avoid a public relations disaster for the U.S. He has been free for fifteen years; more than likely, any intelligence he has in connection with his terrorist activities is stale at this point. What good does it do the United States 15 years after the fact? Needlessly holding al-Liby, after his capture was breaking news and the entire country knew what was going on aboard the ship, was likely generating unwanted publicity for the United States. After all of the negative attention Guantanamo attracted the U.S., it makes sense that Americans hear the words “military” and “interrogation” and automatically draw a parallel between the activities aboard the vessel where Al-Ragye was held and interrogations at Guantanamo. The U.S. is trying to paint a picture of themselves as combatting the War on Terror, and taking a tough stance against terrorists, not as harsh interrogators egregiously committing human rights violations (which, regardless of its truth, is the image many Americans have of Guantanamo). By transferring al-Liby to the U.S., the government is making it clear to the American public that his case is being addressed well within the confines of the law and our legal system; there is an element of transparency that was not available while he was being interrogated on the Naval vessel.
Further, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania occurred three years prior to the September 11th attacks. The September 11th attacks were a turning point that led to a major shift in foreign policy and the way the world deals with terrorism. It is only logical to assume that, as our response to terrorism changed, the way terrorist organizations and their members organize and plot these attacks shifted with it. Thus, pre-9/11 intelligence is likely far less helpful than intelligence stemming from 9/11 and the years following the attacks.
Thus, while the government’s official rationale for al-Liby’s transfer to the U.S. was his failing health, it seems far more logical that this was a strategic public relations maneuver. The U.S. realized that, despite the fact that al-Liby is allegedly one of the most wanted men in the world, at this point, he is old news. Anything he knows is not going to serve as helpful intelligence to the U.S.; the government realized this, and transferred him to the U.S. once they realized that the public was irate and thought this was going to turn into Guantanamo 2.0. The government strategically avoided a public relations nightmare by transferring him to the U.S., allowing for more transparency as he makes his way through the legal process, without ever having to disclose that they were not culling any useful intelligence from their suspect.
Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research