A Terrorist’s Arrest Sets Off a Backlash in Libya

A Terrorist’s Arrest Sets Off a Backlash in Libya

American forces in Libya have reportedly captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the key suspect in the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in 2012. The suspected terrorist is said to be on his way to the United States to face justice. U.S. investigators also named Abu Khatallah as one of the key suspects behind the killing of rebel army leader Abdul Fatah Younis on July 28, 2011. Yet the Libyan authorities were unable to enforce the law and bring Abu Khatallah to justice — even after Abu Khatallah challenged the country’s authorities to arrest him in an interview with CNN’s correspondent in Libya.

This is the second operation that American Special Forces have conducted within Libya to apprehend suspected terrorists wanted by the United States. The first took place in October 2013, when a Special Forces unit captured Abu Anas al-Libi in a raid outside his home in Tripoli. It is not clear if the Libyan government played any role in the capture of these suspected terrorists. After the United States captured Abu Khatallah, Rear Adm. John Kirby remarked that U.S. officials had notified Libya about the operation, but declined to say whether the government assisted in the raid. The Libyan authorities, meanwhile, tried to distance themselves from the raid, issuing a statement a few hours later condemning the violation of Libya’s sovereignty and demanding an explanation from Washington.

Back in October, Libi’s capture sent shockwaves through Libya. Many Libyans were outraged at what they perceived to be an infringement of Libya’s sovereignty — and the Libyan authorities bore the brunt of the criticism, as many assumed that the government must have played some kind of role in the operation. The security agents who kidnapped former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Oct. 10, 2013, hinted that their attack was in retaliation for the raid to capture Libi.

And extremist groups seem to be gearing up to retaliate yet again. Following the reports of Abu Khatallah’s capture in Benghazi, reports emerged from Tripoli that the Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room (LROR), an umbrella group for Islamist militias, had seized the prime minister’s office in the capital. This is likely just the beginning of the detrimental effects of Abu Khatallah’s capture: Rebel and extremist groups are expected to attempt to seize government buildings or kidnap government officials suspected in facilitating the arrest.

Extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia and LROR are coming under increasing pressure — and that may push them to take extreme action. Abu Khatallah’s capture comes at a critical time for Libya, after forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar launched a nonstop air and ground military campaign to push Islamist militias like Ansar al-Sharia out of eastern Libya. (The photo above shows Haftar’s men taking position during clashes in Benghazi in early June.) The offensive will limit the extremist groups’ ability to retaliate militarily — but they are likely to make use of these attacks to further their propaganda campaign decrying a Libyan "crusade on Islam" supported by the United States.

Some Libyans welcomed the U.S. operation to arrest Abu Khatallah, saying that this will bring those suspected of atrocities against Libyans and foreigners inside Libya to justice. Yet others are worried about the consequences this action will have on the already fragile situation in Libya, which continues to face tremendous challenges on both the political and security fronts. But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not see the abduction as a challenge to Libya’s democratic mission: "The Libyan people face great challenges, but the vision of a peaceful and productive new nation will guide Libya’s future, and they will have a friend and partner in the United States," said Kerry.

Though the majority of Libyans reject terrorism and extremism, the United States’ unilateral actions could further destabilize Libya and undermine its democratic transition. Instead, the United States should engage in a way that supports Libya, working alongside its counterparts in Libya’s justice system and law enforcement agencies in the fight against extremism.

The capture of Abu Khatallah and Libi before him should not be the end of the United States’ work in Libya. It must go on to use its political and diplomatic influence to push for a political deal between the different political factions based on democratic values and the rule of law, where extremism and terrorism are rejected completely. This would ensure that the United States has a friend and partner in the fight against terrorism in Libya.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.