What Kind of Intelligence Does the HIG Expect to Get from Anas al-Libi?

There has been all manner of commentary about the rendition and detention on a poorly functioning ship of Abu Anas al Libi. There are credulous claims about the humanity of the High Value Interrogation Group’s tactics that nevertheless remain officially classified. There’s the growing awareness that al-Libi’s case differs from Ahmed Warsame’s in several key ways. And then there’s John Bellinger, trolling the Obama Administration for violating rules the Bush Administration did not in superb fashion.

These are important questions. But they distract from another important question.

What kind of intelligence do they really expect to get from al-Libi?

The explanation for his capture has focused on his alleged role in the 1998 Embassy Bombings. While there are no statutes of limitation for murder, that’s nevertheless an event that took place over 15 years ago. Even some of the analysts we often rely on — not to mention his family — suggest he hasn’t had an active role in al Qaeda for over a decade, or at least since he returned home to Libya 2 years ago. Lisa Monaco offered weak claims about the importance of al-Libi.

During an appearance on PBS Newshour, Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco repeatedly referred to Abu Anas Al-Libi as a “member” of Al Qaeda. However, she stopped short of calling the Libyan-born Al-Libi a “senior operational leader”—a phrase which seemed to have special significance when the Justice Department evaluated the legality of lethal force against U.S. citizens and is also believed to apply to targeting of foreign nationals outside combat zones.

Newshour reporter Jeffrey Brown asked Monaco about whether Al-Libi posed an “imminent” threat to Americans, but Monaco wouldn’t say that and also seemed to avoid declaring that he was an Al-Qaeda operative or even a leader of the group.

“Al-Libi did pose a threat to the United States as a senior al-Qaida member and somebody who is also charged in an indictment for his role as part of the Al Qaeda worldwide conspiracy,” Monaco declared.

This is, at the least, a significant difference from Ahmed Ghailani (who was seized with an active cell in Pakistan and interrogated for years about that active cell before being tried for his role in the Embassy Bombings) and Ahmed Warsame (who was seized for his active role in working with AQAP and al-Shabaab), though it perhaps resembles Suleiman Abu Ghaith.

I’m not saying al-Libi had no active role in terrorism. The timing — the raid took place at the same time as the strike on Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, who allegedly helped plan attacks in Kenya — might suggest al-Libi played some role in the Westgate Mall attack and other operations in Africa.

Perhaps the most complete explanation for why al-Libi is a current threat is this description.

An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlighted al Qaeda’s strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya. The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress (LOC) under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO). [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report.]

Abu Anas al Libi has played a key role in al Qaeda’s plan for Libya, according to the report’s authors. He was described as the “builder of al Qaeda’s network in Libya.”

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) has “issued strategic guidance to followers in Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the Libyan rebellion,” the report reads. AQSL ordered its followers to “gather weapons,” “establish training camps,” “build a network in secret,” “establish an Islamic state,” and “institute sharia” law in Libya.

Abu Anas al Libi was identified as the key liaison between AQSL and others inside Libya who were working for al Qaeda. “Reporting indicates that intense communications from AQSL are conducted through Abu Anas al Libi, who is believed to be an intermediary between [Ayman al] Zawahiri and jihadists in Libya,” the report notes.

Al Libi is “most likely involved in al Qaeda strategic planning and coordination between AQSL and Libyan Islamist militias who adhere to al Qaeda’s ideology,” the report continues.

Al Libi and his fellow al Qaeda operatives “have been conducting consultations with AQSL in Afghanistan and Pakistan about announcing the presence of a branch of the organization that will be led by returnees from Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and by leading figures from the former LIFG.” The LIFG refers to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group formed in Libya in the 1990s.

The suggestion that al-Libi might be the liaison between Ayman al-Zawahiri and extremists in Libya (extremists we helped to overthrow Qaddafi) is more interesting, particularly given Libya’s public objections to al-Libi’s rendition. Perhaps the ultimate plan is to hold al-Libi responsible for Benghazi (though interrogating him in a floating prison might endanger any charges if he was involved, which would be a big problem given the need for some finality on Benghazi). But it might raise interesting questions about whether the extremists we helped in Libya really constitute al Qaeda, or instead constitute a legitimate force within that country.

As of now, however, the US public story is that we captured this guy who has been living in the open for two years for a crime he committed 15 years ago. And that instead of whisking him immediately to NY to stand trial for that crime, we are instead pissing off the Libyan government and nudging up against a slew of domestic and international laws by conducting a floating interrogation from which we might learn only decades old facts. If that’s the story (and again, I suspect the government at least claims there is more), it makes all the legal and ethical issues surrounding his detention all the more problematic.

10 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    So, would I be correct in assuming, since you never allude to it, that you do not believe or find unimportant the claims that Anas al-Libi, along with other members of the LIFG, were working for MI6 in an assassination plot against Gadaffi in 1996?

    Also, surprised to hear no mention of fact the famous Manchester Manual — the one that launched, via Mitchell and Jessen, the U.S. SERE-based torture program for CIA and DOD — originated from a raid on al-Libi’s house in Manchester, where this AQ so-called computer expert left it on his hard drive?

    Or the strange way he was granted asylum in Britain, despite terrorist links, or denied extradition to Egyptian allies?

    And yet you credit CTTSO, who works primarily with international partners like UK intel?

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    @harpie: Nice digging.

    The US and UK machinations in Libya constitute a casebook in political opportunism and unintended blowback — going from US attempts to assassinate Gaddafi and overthrow his regime to use of his torture chambers for the like of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was held by Gaddafi’s government for the Americans, and mysteriously died there in 2009, not long after being contacted by human rights attorneys. Of course, there was Gaddafi’s famous decision to forego nuclear and chemical weapons, followed by US/NATO backing of the overthrow of his regime.

    The hypocrisy and moral mendacity of this kind of policy is mirrored by a press that is uninterested in such matters. So that years now after The Observer/Guardian, the Washington Post, and other press reported the strange history of the LIFG and Anas al-Liby, we hear zip about it now. I suppose one major reason was the mental breakdown of David Shayler after his imprisonment for whistleblowing the UK/LIFG assassination plot, the secret trial, the prior restraint on British press on reporting all this. For a bunch of quotes and links, see “The Shaylergate Files: How MI6 Sponsored Al Qaeda in Libya”.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: I didn’t mention Manchester Manual because, like you, I think the claim he wrote it is bullshit.

    For now I’m just trying to float (heh) the official narratives about why they captured him. Though you raise a whole slew of interesting secondary ones that may be more fruitful.

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    @emptywheel: I take great issue also with final Q&A in Savage and Weisner’s article, to wit, “Q. Why was he [Warsame] so cooperative?”

    Savage and Weisner speculate avoidance of a long prison sentence as Warsame’s motivation to cooperate. However, not surprisingly, they avoid mentioning – and with this they are in line with their colleagues in the field – the fact that interrogation techniques for intelligence purposes are NOT simply for the gathering of information. You note that whatever information in al-Liby’s case, for instance, is likely quite old. But rather than speculate (as you do) on what he can offer of more timely vintage, I think it’s worth noting ALL possibilities under the idea of the “exploitation of the prisoner.”

    You wrote about this as well back around the time Jason Leopold and I exposed the notes Bruce Jessen made on a SERE class that later turned out to be the model for the Enhanced Interrogation Program.

    This is where the question of cooperation intersects the kinds of “interrogation” used by HIG. The reason I got in a dither and called out the New York Times and Savage for “lying” was because they misrepresented the methods by which the Army Field Manual uses interrogation on prisoners. In fact, it may turn out that in Savage’s case (and I suppose his co-author as well), he really just doesn’t understand, as we can see in his tweet threatening to “block” me on Twitter for my “‘lying’ rant”.

    I’m referring to the part where he tells me, “Appendix M is for separation from other detainees captured, as you know” – No, I do not know. I do not know what presumes him to think I do, as I have written story after story about Appendix M, and have more than once pointed out that the segregation or isolation of prisoners for security purposes has nothing to do with the “Separation” technique promulgated in Appendix M. In fact, as I tweeted to Savage, but got no response, the Army Field Manual spells this out explicitly, saving me the trouble of having to analyze the issue for people like Savage.

    According to Appendix M, the “use of segregation during prisoner handling… should not be confused w/use of separation as restricted interrog. techniqu[e]”, I tweeted.

    In any case, the abuse in Appendix M — abuse condemned by a host of legal and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Open Society Foundations, Human Rights First, Physicians for Human Rights, Center for Constitutional Rights, and othgs — is calculated to produce the exploitation of the prisoner, i.e. (from the article I wrote with Jason) “the full exploitation of the prisoner in his intelligence, propaganda, or other needs held by the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents.”

    Ah… the final link in my argument (and longish comment): Anas al-Libi has been accused of being such a double agent (part of a MI6 plot to assassinate Gaddafi) by none other than a former member of MI5, David Shayler, who went on the lam to protect himself, was arrested, charged and imprisoned for revealing this and associated information. It made headlines in both the UK and the US, and was known as Shaylergate. Nothing in Shayler’s later sad and confusing denouement takes away from the significance of what he leaked.

    So, yes, I do think these “secondary” issues are really primary, and if not the main reason to take al Liby now (that is, to shut him up as the U.S. steps up intervention in Libya), then at least reasons that should be explored and open for public consideration.

  5. Watson says:

    ‘conducting a floating interrogation from which we might learn only decades old facts’

    To me, the least credible aspect of the official OBL narrative is that Uncle Sam supposedly didn’t place a high priority on capturing him alive so that he could be interrogated.

    I suspect that if OBL was actually alive in 2011 and was the subject of that raid, that he would have been ‘rendered’ to a secret prison for interrogation. Whether he would still be alive would depend on how much the Kerik/Clapper types valued his ongoing usefulness.

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