Alleged plotter in ’98 U.S. Embassy bombings held in N.Y.

James Rosen | Tribune Media,Marisa Taylor

A Libyan al Qaida leader who’s accused of helping to plot the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa was in federal custody in New York on Monday, nine days after a Delta Force raid captured him outside his home in Tripoli and following a week of presumed interrogation on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he expected Abu Anas al Libi, whose formal name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai, to appear before a federal magistrate judge or district judge Tuesday.

“Anas al Libi was transferred to law enforcement custody this weekend and was brought directly to the Southern District of New York, where he has been under indictment for more than a decade,” Bharara said in a statement.

Al Libi had been one of four fugitives among 21 people indicted in the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including two CIA agents and 10 other Americans.

With a $5 million bounty placed on his head by the FBI, a team of Army Delta Force, CIA and FBI agents nabbed al Libi on Oct. 5 in the Libyan capital as he returned from morning prayers. He’s thought to have then been questioned on a Navy ship for a week before his transfer to New York.

“It’s a really good get,” Jack Cloonan, a retired FBI agent and former member of the bureau’s Osama bin Laden unit, told McClatchy. “It’s unfinished business.”

Cloonan, who said he’d tracked al Libi “for a very long time,” said U.S. prosecutors shouldn’t have any difficulty putting him on trial in federal court instead of a military tribunal.

With President Barack Obama having renewed his pledge to close the U.S. prison for alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, holding a federal trial for a former bin Laden lieutenant such as al Libi might set a precedent for how the 164 men still being held there will be tried.

Other accused al Qaida militants at Guantanamo – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – have been tried before military commissions at the prison.

“This is a very positive development,” Gregory Fox, an expert on international law at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, said of al Libi’s transfer to New York. “Federal courts are vastly preferable to military commissions. They’re more transparent. It shows that we don’t lack confidence in the ability of our federal court system to handle the most serious crimes.”

Fox said federal courts had a strong track record of dealing with alleged terrorists.

“There have been many terrorists prosecuted in federal court, including the people who tried to blow up the World Trade Center the first time in 1993,” he said. “The judges are fair, the prosecutors are vigorous, the defense lawyers are very competent and the outcome ends up looking much more legitimate than a semi-public military commission.”

Obama personally approved the raid that captured al Libi. He also signed off on a separate covert operation in Somalia the same day that targeted, but failed to capture, a leader of al Shabab, an al Qaida affiliate in the east Africa country.

Al Libi is accused of conducting surveillance in preparation for the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Former associates are thought to be cooperating with the government and are expected to testify against him.

Cloonan said prosecutors had a “treasure trove” of evidence against al Libi, including blueprints drawn up by the bombers and the laptop computer used in the surveillance.

“The government has a very, very strong case against al Libi,” Cloonan said.

Eugene R. Fidell, a Yale Law School professor who’s written extensively about the Guantanamo Bay detentions, said al Libi’s prospective trial in New York was an ironic outcome of a law Congress passed in 2010 that limited the ability of the U.S. attorney general to transfer detainees there to stand trial in federal court.

Al Libi probably was taken to New York instead of being sent to Guantanamo, Fidell said, because it would have been difficult to move him from there later.

“What (lawmakers) have done is to incentivize the executive branch not to send people to Guantanamo because it’s a one-way ticket,” Fidell said.

Before the restrictions were imposed, the first former Guantanamo detainee to be tried in federal court, Ahmed Ghailani, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was prosecuted for the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, as well.

In the most celebrated civil case to date, the government successfully prosecuted alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who’d been arrested in Minneapolis a month before the terrorist attacks while taking lessons in flying a 747 jumbo jet.

After he was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life without parole in a supermax prison in Colorado, Moussaoui attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, saying he’d come to realize he could get a fair trial in the United States. His motion was denied.

Greg Gordon contributed to this article.

By James Rosen and Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Washington Bureau