In nabbing terror suspect in Libya, US sends message
Washington - The US military’s nabbing of a terror suspect in Libya to stand trial in a civilian court in the United States is sending a message that US President Donald Trump is determined to chase terrorists halfway around the world.
However, the case holds another, more discrete, signal: For all his tough rhetoric, Trump is continuing a policy of his predecessor Barack Obama.
Members of US Navy SEAL Team 6 and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team captured Mustafa al-Imam on October 30 near the Libyan city of Misrata after a months-long surveillance operation. News reports said Imam was taken to a US Navy ship off the Libyan coast to be transferred to the United States. He is expected to be charged with terrorism offences.
Imam is accused of taking part in a raid by extremists on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, in which four Americans, including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, were killed.
The attack sparked a massive debate in the United States and became a political liability for Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state at the time who was Trump’s rival in last year’s presidential election.
Another suspect in the Benghazi attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was arrested by US forces in Libya in 2014 and is facing charges in a US court. A year before, US forces in Libya captured Nazih Abdul-hamed al-Ruqai, an al-Qaeda member suspected of involvement in the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, and took him to the United States. Ruqai died of liver cancer in US custody in 2015.
In announcing Imam’s capture, Trump said his government was determined to hunt down those involved in the Benghazi attack. “Our memory is deep and our reach is long and we will not rest in our efforts to find and bring the perpetrators of the heinous attacks in Benghazi to justice,” Trump said in a statement.
He thanked “law enforcement, prosecutors, intelligence community and military personnel for their extraordinary efforts in gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and tracking down fugitives associated with the attack, capturing them and delivering them to the United States for prosecution.”
By moving Imam to the United States to stand trial in a civilian court, Trump is quietly moving away from campaign rhetoric in which he demanded that terror suspects should be sent to the US facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many terror suspects were held following the attacks on September 11, 2001, with some still in custody there. Suspects have fewer rights in military court procedures in Guantanamo than in a civilian court on US soil.
“This is a continuation of the Obama administration’s policy of bringing perpetrators of terrorism on the federal court system in the US instead of prosecuting them though the military court system,” Ben Fishman, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former National Security Council official, wrote via e-mail.
The action to capture Imam marks a victory for the FBI, the New York Times reported. FBI officials had been concerned that operations to catch terror suspects and try them in a civilian court in the United States would not be continued under Trump, the newspaper said.
In another example that Trump’s rhetoric is not always matched by concrete action, he demanded that the suspected perpetrator of an attack in Manhattan that killed eight people on October 31 be sent to Guantanamo, only hours before federal prosecutors in New York charged the man, Sayfullo Saipov, in a civilian court.
Fishman said an operation by US special forces to capture a suspect such as Imam had clear advantages over a mission to kill a suspected terrorist. “From the US perspective, a capture operation is always preferable to bring the individual to justice and gain potential intelligence about the events of September 11, 2012, and the accused’s network,” he said.
Operations such as the one in Misrata take months of planning and surveillance as well as cooperation with local partners. In getting Imam out of war-torn Libya, where Washington has been supporting the UN-backed government in Tripoli, US commandoes acted with the knowledge of local authorities. Mohammed al-Ghasri, spokesman of the Tripoli government’s Defence Ministry, told the Reuters news agency that the US troops sent to arrest Imam had acted in “coordination with the security agencies inside Misrata city.”
The place of the capture is significant because Imam did not usually live in Misrata but had previously stayed in Benghazi in the east of the country, dominated by a rival government allied with military Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Fishman said it was notable that Imam was captured in Misrata “as opposed to Benghazi since US military forces have cooperated with government-aligned forces from Mistrata” in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Libya.
Similar US actions against terror suspects in Libya are possible but the complicated effort to identify a target and work out a plan to capture a potential terrorist needs time. “These things take a long time to plan,” Fishman said. “I wouldn’t expect something in the short term.”