But there was speculation among some in Washington on Monday about whether the U.S. Special Forces community sought to send an enhanced message to al-Shabab with the timing of the Somalia raid, since it coincided nearly to the day with 20th anniversary of the shooting down of two U.S. military Black Hawk helicopters by militants in Mogadishu — an incident made intimately familiar to Americans in the 2001 Hollywood movie “Black Hawk Down.”
With regard to the Libya raid, some questioned Monday why U.S. authorities chose now to go after al-Libi, who was believe to have been active in al Qaeda’s leadership years ago but now living largely out in the open in Tripoli. Some Republicans, who have criticized the Obama administration for failing to capture other militants suspected of involvement last year’s Benghazi attacks, were quick to raise questions about the raid.
“Why if we were able to get al-Libi we didn’t get the operatives from Benghazi?” Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and an outspoken proponent of taking the fight to terrorists, asked during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We know where they are and they’ve been almost open and notorious now for quite awhile.”
In August, it was revealed that the Justice Department had filed criminal charges against Libyan militia leader Ahmed Khatallah on suspicion of involvement in the Benghazi attack.
In a twist that has shocked some observers, Mr. Khatallah has over the past year granted repeated interviews to Western news organizations and, on Monday he told The Associated Press that he is not worried about being next on the list for capture by the Americans.
One former official said it was likely that intelligence about Mr. al-Libi’s exact whereabouts became suddenly actionable and emphasized the strategic relevance of messaging behind both the operation that captured him in Libya, as well as the Somalia raid.
“If for some reason you’re on our bad-boy list, somehow we’re gonna get ya — I think that’s the real message that Obama wants to send right now,” said Dell Dailey, a retired Army general who headed the Joint Special Operations Command during the years following 9/11 and later the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism.
The trouble with Libya
Terrorism analysts have for months pointed to Libya as an emerging safe zone for operatives from a host of al Qaeda affiliates, who’ve seized upon a lack of security as well as a government power vacuum that followed the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The nation’s porous borders, the ready availability weaponry that surrounded the revolution and the subsequent government’s relative lack of power have made Libya “a very soft target for these transactional terror groups,” says Dirk Vandewalle, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who has written extensively on Libya and traveled regular to Tripoli over the past two years.
Mr. Vandewalle said he believes the U.S. intelligence community is now monitoring Libya closely, but struggling to pin down reliable intelligence that can be acted upon successfully in the Libya’s evolving and chaotic security landscape.
“The older generation of al Qaeda, people like al-Libi have been pretty systematically hunted down,” he said. “I think what we don’t know is how fast some of these positions are being replenished by newer recruits and where exactly these newer recruits are coming from. I think there’s a good chunk of intelligence that’s missing on that second generation.”
Following last year’s attacks in Benghazi, he said, “my hunch is that Libya is probably one of the most closely watched countries from our intelligence perspective.”