TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Libya remains in turmoil over last week’s brief kidnapping of the prime minister by Islamist militiamen, but that is not the only abduction roiling the country - there’s equal outrage over the snatching by American commandos of an al-Qaida suspect, a man his family says is innocent of terrorist crimes.
Libyan-born Abu Anas al-Libi has had a $5 million price on his head for more than a decade, and American officials have for years classified the 49-year-old as one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, claiming he was behind the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that left 224 civilians dead.
A week ago the manhunt ended when he was snatched by a U.S. Special Forces team as he was returning from dawn prayers to his home in a middle-class district of Tripoli. But his wife of 22 years, Umm Abdul Rahman, and his three sons insist he is innocent of any crimes, arguing he is a Libyan patriot, an easy-going husband and a kind father. “My husband was affiliated with al-Qaida a long time ago. But he was never a senior leader in al-Qaida. He was a member. But in 1996 he totally broke off with al-Qaida,” she explained.
Speaking with VOA in the family’s cramped two-bedroom apartment, Rahman said al-Libi went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Russians and gravitated to Osama bin Laden after he was badly wounded in 1988 in the battle for Jalalabad.
She said he became disillusioned with al-Qaida’s focus on American and Western targets, opting instead to join the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Islamist dissidents who tried for two decades to oust longtime Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
“He broke off with al-Qaida for several reasons. But when he got to know the men at the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group they had a common vision, a common cause, a common enemy, which was the Gadhafi regime and they wanted to remove or overthrow this regime,” Rahman stated.
Al-Libi and his family lived a peripatetic existence that included spells in Sudan, Qatar and Britain. They endured years of imprisonment in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan when the U.S. invaded.
And now she worries about her husband, who is being held reportedly on board a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean. U.S. officials say al-Libi took surveillance photographs in 1993 of the Nairobi embassy and reviewed other possible Western targets for al-Qaida in east Africa. He was indicted with 20 others in 2000 by a court in New York, an indictment based on information supplied by an Egyptian jihadist who worked as a double agent for the CIA.
“These are false accusations and it is very hurtful and worrisome when the President of the United States like Obama characterizes my husband as a killer and a killer of hundreds without providing any evidence, without providing any proof. Isn’t the accused innocent until proven guilty?” asked Rahman.
“Our father was kidnapped we have no idea is he still alive," Al-Libi’s 20-year-old oldest son, Abdullah said. "Is he in good shape? Is he in bad shape? We want to talk to him. We want to reach out to him. We want to know how he’s doing. Right now we are just living that same day over and over, the day of the kidnapping. We don’t know how he’s doing.”
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan has assured the family he had no prior knowledge of the American operation to snatch al-Libi: the Americans say the Libyan government gave tacit approval. Zidan's mainly Islamist political foes don’t believe him and are now demanding he resign.