The national debate over how to treat suspected terrorists seized overseas has a new poster child: a 49-year old Libyan extremist charged as one of the planners in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
Abu Anas al-Libi was snatched from the street outside his home in Tripoli by members of the Army's Delta Force on Oct. 5 and was being interrogated under the laws of war by a special multiagency team until concerns about his health prompted his transfer to a medical facility in the United States last week, a U.S. official told The Washington Times.
Al-Libi, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday to charges that he helped plan the suicide truck bombings at the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es-Salam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998. The massive explosions killed 224 people and wounded many thousands more, mostly Kenyans and Tanzanians. Twelve Americans were killed in the Nairobi bombing.
Al-Libi was later indicted, along with more than 20 other suspected al Qaeda terrorists, for his role in helping plan the bombing. The indictment cast a wide net over suspected al Qaeda conspirators, including Osama bin Laden himself.
On Tuesday, critics painted al-Libi's treatment as using kid gloves on terrorists and urged the president to move him to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial by a military commission.
"It is despicable that, under the direction of President Obama, foreign terrorists who have targeted and killed innocent people are being provided the same rights as American citizens," Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Administration officials and their supporters say that the federal criminal courts have a much better record of successfully convicting and imprisoning accused terrorists than the military commissions at Guantanamo.
Justice Department figures show that 125 terrorists have been convicted by civilian criminal courts since President Obama became president in 2009 and that U.S. federal prisons currently hold more than 300 of them, including al Qaeda conspirators Zacarias Moussaoui, Faisal Shahzad, Ramzi Yousef and Richard Reid.
By contrast, human right advocates argue, U.S. military commissions have convicted only seven terrorists since 9/11, and not a single case of anyone charged in connection to the terrorists attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has been concluded.
"Trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts has proven to be the most effective and efficient option," said former FBI counter-terrorism agent Don Borelli, a supporter of the advocacy group, Human Rights First.
The U.S. official who spoke to The Washington Times said concerns about al-Libi's health prompted his transfer to the United States.
"After several days, it was determined that he needed more ongoing medical treatment than could be provided" on the USS Sullivan, the Navy vessel where al-Libi was being interrogated, said the official, who asked not to be identified by name or agency even though he works in a public affairs bureau.
Al-Libi was admitted to "a medical facility upon his arrival in the New York area" last week, the official said, but he was discharged for Tuesday's court hearing and sent to a "detention facility" afterward.
The official said the decisions about al-Libi's treatment had been made "on the guidance of the military physicians monitoring his condition."
"Upon his capture, it became apparent that he has several pre-existing health conditions," the official added. He declined to elaborate, but al-Libi's family told reporters that he has hepatitis C, a chronic disease of the liver.
But Mr. Inhofe said any medical issues could have been dealt with at Guantanamo Bay, the special detention camp built for terrorist suspects by the Bush administration and sited in Cuba to be beyond the reach of U.S. courts.
"I do not know of any reason why Guantanamo Bay's detainee medical facility, which is widely credited with providing excellent care to detainees, or the base's hospital, could not adequately treat al-Libi's condition," he said.
Being detained under the law of war, "he could be held for the duration of hostilities, his interrogation could continue, and [he could] still stand trial," he added.
Last year, a U.S. government study of al Qaeda in Libya identified al-Libi as "most likely involved in al Qaeda strategic planning ... and coordination between [the group's senior leaders] and Libyan Islamist militias who adhere to al Qaeda's ideology."
His family have told reporters from international news outlets that he was retired from al Qaeda and was living openly in Tripoli.
His interrogation was carried out by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, set up in 2009 to bring together "interrogators and support personnel from across" U.S. defense, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, according to the Justice Department.
The group deploys mobile teams of experienced interrogators, analysts, subject matter experts and linguists to conduct interrogations.
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