- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO, Egypt — "We will begin kidnapping Americans wherever they are found in Libya, God willing."
For the United States, the capture of al Qaeda leader Nazih al-Ruqai, a longtime operative of the terror organization, was an unvarnished victory. In Libya, however, not everyone sees the raid as such a ringing success: A Facebook group called "We Are All Nazih al-Ruqai, Oh America" was created shortly after the raid and already has over 4,000 "likes." The message above is just one of dozens of posts by jihadi sympathizers that threaten retaliatory violence against the United States and the Libyan government. Some Libyans have raised fears that the assault will weaken the already shaky central government in Tripoli, by convincing people that it is unable to protect Libyans or defend the country’s borders.
Ruqai, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi, was taken without a fight in the early morning hours of Saturday while on his way home from morning prayers, and is currently being interrogated aboard the U.S.S. San Antonio. According to a Library of Congress report, Ruqai is an "intelligence specialist" who first joined up with Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s. He has been indicted by a U.S. court for planning the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in east Africa, which killed over 220 people, and has reportedly been tasked by al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri with building an al Qaeda network in Libya.
The threat to kidnap Americans is just the tip of the iceberg of jihadi anger at Ruqai’s capture. Another post contains a photoshopped image of Libyan militiamen storming the White House lawn — the inscription reads "Grant us our wishes, oh God."
Other posts highlight American defeats, in an apparent attempt to raise jihadi morale. One post included an image that showed the aftermath of a bombing that has been described as occurring in Iraq, with a tagline that read "Greetings to America, do you want to repeat your losing experience?" Another message applauded the failed U.S. raid in Somalia, in which American commandos targeted a top leader of al-Shabab but were forced to withdraw before capturing him. The posting attributed the failure of the assault, which occurred at the same time as the operation against Ruqai, to "the steadfastness, courage, and resistance" of al-Shabab’s fighters.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government has condemned the raid, describing it as the "kidnapping of a Libyan citizen." Meanwhile, many Libyans have taken the assault as evidence that the government is too weak to protect its own borders: As former Islamist militia commander Abdul Bassit Harroun put it, "this means the Libyan state does not exist."
However, there is circumstantial evidence that the government in Tripoli may not have been as in the dark about the raid as it claims to be. Ruqai’s son — drawing on an account of his mother, who witnessed the incident — said that the men who seized his father were Libyans, and spoke with a Tripoli accent. U.S. officials speaking to the New York Times, meanwhile, said that the Libyan government was willing to tacitly support the raid "as long as they could protest in public."
Jihadi sympathizers tended to also believe that Zeidan was complicit in the raid. Some messages delivered ultimatums — one gave him 24 hours to retrieve Ruqai or resign, while another issued a call for early elections. Such political pressure is not limited to the extremist fringe: Libyan legislators have announced that they will summon Zeidan to testify about his knowledge of the raid and the government’s handling of the incident.
Meanwhile, Ruqai’s supporters — perhaps oddly, as they were defending a man known for transnational terror attacks — also expressed outrage at the prime minister’s failure to protect Libya’s borders. "Is Libya became the backyard of the world???" read one question posed in English to Zeidan.
It is impossible to know the gravity of the threat to either the United States or the Libyan government from posts such as these — there is, after all, a large gap between venting on Facebook and carrying out an attack. However, there is no doubt that a sizeable group of Libyans are angry about the U.S. raid this weekend, and the prospect of them trying to take revenge for Ruqai’s capture is just one more thing for the beleaguered government in Tripoli to worry about.