After dawn prayers Oct. 5, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a wanted al-Qaeda terrorism suspect, returned to his family’s home in Tripoli, Libya.
He stopped his car in front of the house, nestled in an affluent neighborhood in the coastal capital city. It was 6:38 a.m. and still dark.
A white van trailing Ruqai pulled alongside his car. Then at least three men, with guns drawn, jumped out of the van as another car blocked Ruqai’s escape and a third vehicle idled down the street.
The men yanked Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, out of his car and threw him in the van, according to a video of the abduction obtained by The Washington Post. The video, from a closedcircuit camera in the neighborhood, provides a rare glimpse of a U.S. covert operation and captures some of the bewildered reaction in Ruqai’s home once he had disappeared.
Ruqai’s detention immediately became international news and was unusual because of the involvement of the U.S. military in the kind of operation traditionally carried out by the CIA with foreign partners.
Less than two minutes after the Libyan was cornered, U.S. Special Operations forces sped away with the suspect and his vehicle. Ruqai was taken to a Libyan military base and then to the USS San Antonio, a warship waiting off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea.
Ruqai’s arrest, carried out in a joint operation by the CIA, the FBI and the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force, ended a 13-year hunt for a man once thought to be close to Osama bin Laden. Ruqai is accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa, which resulted in more than 200 deaths.
He is awaiting trial in New York, held in the special housing unit of a jail across from the federal courthouse. At a hearing in October, Ruqai pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges.
His attorney, Bernard Kleinman, says that Ruqai never swore an oath of allegiance, or bayat, to bin Laden and that he abandoned the East Africa conspiracy more than four years before the attacks took place.
“My client is innocent of any and all actions that either directly or indirectly resulted in the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998,” Kleinman said. “His trial will prove this beyond any doubt whatsoever.”
He noted that Ruqai had fought to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, a goal that the United States had supported.
“He was part of a small group that did the casing for the Nairobi embassy,” said former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, who investigated the attacks. “I think he is part of the conspiracy to blow up the embassy. You don’t do a casing of an embassy because you want to do landscaping. You do it because you want to blow it up.”
The CIA and the FBI declined to comment.
A computer expert by training, Ruqai had long-standing ties with al-Qaeda and other militant organizations, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who would discuss the case only on the condition of anonymity because it is before the courts.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ruqai fought with the insurgents there and was wounded in the leg. In 1992, he moved to Khartoum, Sudan, to work for bin Laden, who had relocated there. While in Sudan, Ruqai was dispatched to Kenya to conduct surveillance on possible targets for an al-Qaeda operation, according to a federal indictment and former U.S intelligence officials.
One of the targets was the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the indictment alleges. Kleinman says his client had severed his ties with al-Qaeda in 1994, more than four years before the attacks.
But a top-secret U.S. document, which was leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, describes Ruqai as a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization founded in 1995. The group was dedicated to overthrowing Gaddafi and had close ties to al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.
The document said Ruqai was on the group’s security committee and described him as a “senior AQ planner.”
After a peripatetic existence in the 1990s, Ruqai was back in Afghanistan in 2001. After the U.S. invasion, he and a large group of suspected al-Qaeda operatives fled to neighboring Iran.
The Iranians allowed them to move freely but prevented them from leaving the country, Kleinman said. The U.S. intelligence documents, however, state that Ruqai was seen in an Iranian jail in 2005.
A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Ruqai was one of three suspected senior al-Qaeda operatives in Iran who were indicted for involvement in the 1998 bombings.
The official said the other two, Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, both Egyptians, are thought to still be in Iran.
Ruqai and his wife and sons lived in Iran for several years before the Iranians, without explanation, told them to leave in 2010, Kleinman said. The family returned to Libya.
Kleinman said his client participated in the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi, and family members have said that one of his sons was killed in the fighting.
By July 2012, the United States was aware that Ruqai was in Libya, and officials were concerned that he posed a serious threat to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
A U.S. official said the plan to capture him began months before he was seized. The official said the United States approached Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and asked permission to detain Ruqai and Ahmed Abu Khattala, a militia leader who has been charged in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Zeidan approved both operations, which were to take place within days of each other.
The Libyan government is paying for Ruqai’s defense, according to U.S. officials. The Libyan Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Kleinman said his client was not at war with the United States but with Libya’s dictator.
“My client was always focused on one, and only one, objective — the overthrow of the dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi,” he said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.