Fed Prosecutors: al-Libi Admitted al-Qaeda Membership, Was bin Laden Pen Pal

Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruquai, the alleged al-Qaeda operative from Libya better known by the nomme de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi, has admitted being a charter member of al-Qaeda, according to federal prosecutors who will put al-Libi on trial next month in Manhattan federal court for participating in the terrorist group’s global conspiracy to kill Americans.

The United States military abducted al-Libi from a street in Tripoli, Libya last year, held him for a week on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea and interrogated him. Shortly after that, while on a seven hour flight from Italy to the United States, prosecutors allege that al-Libi told an FBI agent and an investigator for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York that he joined al-Qaeda at its founding in Afghanistan in 1989 and was trained to perform a variety of tasks from forging passports to making bombs.

Prosecutors say al-Libi told investigators on the plane that when al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden relocated from Afghanistan to Sudan in 1992, al-Libi went with him, and when bin Laden set up headquarters on a farm outside Khartoum, al-Libi served as his chief bodyguard.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan has not yet ruled whether these post-arrest statements, now partially disclosed, will be admissible at trial. In a hearing two months ago, al-Libi’s attorney argued that his client was coerced into signing a waiver of his Miranda rights while he was aboard the plane. 

The interrogation disclosures appear in a motion by prosecutors to persuade Judge Kaplan to allow them to show jurors two letters sent by al-Libi to bin Laden while the al-Qaeda leader was hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, prior to U.S special forces killing him in May 2011.

There are also four letters about al-Libi by bin Laden’s chief aide in Abbottabad, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, that prosecutors would like to put in evidence.

Taken together, prosecutors say, the letters, illustrate al-Libi’s “unwavering commitment…to a violently and unambiguously anti-American agenda.”

The letters commence in 2010, soon after al-Libi was released from eight years in jail and house arrest inside Iran along with other al-Qaeda leaders like imprisoned ex-spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith and two men still on the FBI’s Most Wanted List — Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (commonly known as Saleh), the leader of al-Qaeda’s East Africa cell in the late 1990s.

Al-Libi, like al-Adel and Saleh, is charged in connection with the Aug. 7, 1998, twin truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which together killed 224 people and injured thousands.

After al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al-Libi and the others fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan before making their way into Iran by late 2001 or early 2002.

“The contents of the Abbottabad Letters demonstrate the defendant’s ongoing loyalty to bin Laden and to al-Qaeda,” prosecutors say in their motion. “The defendant expresses his knowledge of, and affection for, bin Laden; his ongoing devotion to bin Laden; his desire that—after his long incarceration in Iran—he and bin Laden be ‘reunite[d]’ under the ‘banner of jihad,’” prosecutors say, quoting from draft translations of the letters, which remain under seal.

Within 90 days of his release from Iran, al-Libi met with bin Laden’s aide Atiyah who wrote bin Laden that al-Libi was “ready to take on additional duties in the future,” prosecutors say.

“Almost immediately upon his release from Iranian custody in 2010, the defendant essentially picks up with al-Qaeda where he left off,” prosecutors say, adding that al-Libi traveled back to Pakistan while sending his family home through Turkey to Libya.

In October 2010, al-Libi wrote a five-page letter to bin Laden describing his time in Iran, prosecutors say, and blessing “those who support him and war on his enemies.” Al-Libi continued, “You know the place you hold in my heart and so I ask Allah to bring us together. . . . I ask God to reunite me with you soon under the banner of Islam and the Islamic state and the banner of jihad,” prosecutors say. The motion is silent on whether or not they ever met again or if bin Laden wrote back.

In March 2011, al-Libi wrote a different al-Qaeda leader, prosecutors say, requesting bin Laden’s permission to return to his native Libya, where the armed rebellion against former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was in full swing.

Next month, al-Libi will stand trial alongside a Saudi man accused of being a longtime aide to bin Laden, Khalid al-Fawwaz, who served as a London-based spokesman for the group in the 1990s and was jailed in England for more than a decade while fighting his extradition to the U.S., which finally happened in 2012.

Starting in 1996, al-Libi also lived in England, disappearing after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A Scotland Yard raid in 2000 on al-Libi’s Manchester residence yielded the discovery of what has become known as the al-Qaeda terror manual, an 18-chapter guide on killing and tradecraft written in Arabic and translated into English by the U.S. government.

Al-Libi’s defense maintains he is not the author of the terror manual and that his own paramilitary activities were directed at the overthrow of Qaddafi. He also told that to investigators on the plane ride to the U.S., prosecutors say.

The trial is now scheduled to begin January 12 with the selection of jurors who will be granted anonymity and transported to and from the courthouse by U.S. Marshalls. Members of the jury pool have been summoned to come to the courthouse this week to fill out questionnaires.

[Editor’s Note: For more background on legal issues in the case, see Just Security’ s prior coverage including, Jennifer Daskal and Steve Vladeck, The Case of Abu Anas al-Libi: The Domestic Law Issues and Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey, The Case of Abu Anas al-Libi: International Law Q & A] 

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About the Author(s)

Phil Hirschkorn

Fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and New York-Based Journalist covering Al Qaeda and terrorism trials for 15 years