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Official: Captured al-Qaida leader brought to amphib for interrogation

Oct. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
A senior al-Qaida leader in Libya, Abu Anas al-Libi, is being held for interrogation on the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17), seen here anchored off the coast of Qatar in April.
A senior al-Qaida leader in Libya, Abu Anas al-Libi, is being held for interrogation on the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17), seen here anchored off the coast of Qatar in April. (MCS 3rd Class Lacordrick Wilson / Navy)
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The U.S. raid that nabbed a senior al-Qaida leader in Libya and a similar operation in Somalia are riskier than the White House’s more common use of drones to target terrorists, but the operations allow U.S. authorities to gather valuable intelligence, security analysts say.

“The President has made clear our preference for capturing terrorist targets when possible ... in order to elicit as much valuable intelligence as we can and bring a dangerous terrorist to justice,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.

In Libya, U.S. commandos on Saturday captured Abu Anas al-Libi, who was wanted in connection with the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The raid team brought Al-Libi to the amphibious transport dock San Antonio for interrogation, a defense official confirmed to Navy Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Al-Libi can be detained aboard San Antonio for questioning in one of the ship’s many secure spaces, such as its brig, where officials hope to exploit his knowledge of al-Qaida operations and communications to make gains against the terror network.

Officials on-the-record are being tight-lipped about al-Libi’s presence.

Defense Department Press Secretary George Little said Sunday that al-Libi was transferred to “a secure location outside of Libya,” noting that al-Libi would be held per the “law of war.”

A spokesman for the Naples, Italy-based 6th Fleet did not reply to requests for comment Monday.

San Antonio deployed from Norfolk on March 11 with Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit; the crew is now into its seventh month of deployment. The ship spent time in 5th Fleet before returning to the Mediterranean and was one of the many ships available to respond if the U.S. ordered strikes on Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons on its citizens.

The Saturday attack came shortly after an unrelated raid in Somalia which was aimed at aimed at an al-Qaida-linked militant group responsible for a deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall.

The results of the Somalia raid were less clear, as the Navy SEAL team that executed the raid pulled out before confirming whether the target of that operation was killed in the firefight.

The White House has commonly used drone strikes to target suspected terrorists, a tactic that poses far less risk to U.S. forces.

By contrast, raids are dangerous operations that involve inserting small teams secretly into often hostile territory and removing them quickly after the mission is accomplished.

In the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a team of Navy SEALs penetrated deep into Pakistani airspace, killing bin Laden and grabbing computers and other intelligence before Pakistan’s military could respond.

Security analysts say it is unlikely the two raids signal a dramatic shift in policy, as there were specific conditions that provided rare opportunities. Both Libya and Somalia have weak central governments that lack the ability to quickly detect a raiding party.

Libya’s fledgling government apparently was not even aware of the operation to capture al-Libi and on Sunday asked for “clarification” from the U.S. government.

Similarly, when Navy SEALs entered Somalia they were operating in a country where entire regions are outside the control of the Western-backed government.

The ability to launch an operation from the sea is also an advantage, analysts say. “They are risky, but less so when you have sea access and a weak foe,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a security expert at the Brookings Institution.

The Pentagon has not released details of either raid. The raids may yield valuable intelligence.

“They increase the opportunity for intelligence collection and exploitation through the interrogation of captured individuals and the seizure of material at the raid site, from computers to notebooks and cell phones,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a think tank.

“Both missions appear to have been designed to capture terrorists, probably to acquire intelligence on this spreading danger,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official.

Riedel said the U.S. is concerned about the growth of al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout Africa.

The raid in Libya also allowed the U.S. to avoid risking civilian casualties, which are often tied to drone strikes, O’Hanlon said.

The U.S. government was not faced with a problem of what to do with al-Libi once he is captured. Unlike many other suspected militants, al-Libi has been indicted on U.S. charges and could be tried in U.S. courts. He was quickly spirited out of Libya, the Pentagon said.

U.S. forces have grown more experienced in the tactics of conducting raids, which require elaborate planning and lightning execution. U.S. commando units have years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, O’Hanlon said.

The two raids “demonstrate the unparalleled precision, global reach, and capabilities of the United States military,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Sunday.

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