During al-Qaeda’s early years in the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden ran the terrorist group out of Sudan, a young Libyan man who was part of his country’s besieged diaspora of Islamists used his advanced computer skills to rise to the top of the organization long before it emerged as a global menace.
After the Libyan uprising started in early 2011, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai — who was detained by U.S. Special Operations forces over the weekend — was among the Islamists who flocked back home. He soon received an important assignment from al-
Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, according to a U.S. intelligence official: establish a cell for the network in his strategic North African homeland, which was reeling from a brutal civil war.
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“He was tasked to create a terrorist network in Libya and involved in strategic planning between al-Qaeda and Libya,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence assessment. The official said the order was delivered within the past year, which might help explain why the Obama administration authorized the rare and risky “rendition” carried out Saturday by U.S. commandos.
American officials have said the capture of Ruqai, who used the alias Anas al-Libi, could yield a trove of new information about the enigmatic operative, who was instrumental in the rise of al-
Qaeda and appeared to be playing a key role in its renaissance. There is relatively little public information about what he has been doing since he fled Britain in 1999.
Ruqai, 49, is being held somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS San Antonio, an amphibious transport dock. U.S. counterterrorism interrogators are hopeful that he will offer new insight into the recent transformation of al-Qaeda into a decentralized network that has consolidated new footholds in North Africa.
“My guess is that he will have a good deal to tell us about what has been going on in Libya and a significant amount of information to tell us about what al-Qaeda has been up to between 2001 and the present,” said Daniel Benjamin, who recently stepped down as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism and is a foreign policy expert at Dartmouth College. “Possibly that will help us identify priorities and decide who else needs to be paid attention to.”
Ruqai was among the Islamists drawn to Afghan battlefields in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, when bin Laden set out to plan a spectacular attack against U.S. embassies in Africa from his base in Sudan, the al-Qaeda leader tasked Ruqai with scoping out targets. The group later carried out the bombings against the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people.
According to testimony provided in February 2001 by a former al-Qaeda member who became a U.S. government witness in a federal case in New York, Ruqai took photos of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and helped develop them in an apartment. Ruqai, who has been indicted in a federal terrorism case in New York, also stands accused of gathering information on potential British and Israeli targets in the Kenyan capital.