Abu Anas al-Libi, captured in a daring US raid, was once in Osama bin Laden's inner circle, but appears to have had few ties to Libya's new generation of jihadists.
Islamists inspired by Al-Qaeda’s war on the West have flourished in chaotic post-Kadhafi Libya, but evince little interest in the core group founded by bin Laden in the 1990s, which has been decimated by arrests and US drone strikes in the decade-long War on Terror.
But in a measure of the limited success of that campaign, young militants now wave the black banner of radical Islam in war zones from Mali to Syria, while Libi appears to have lived the quiet life of a retiree in Tripoli, with little if any involvement in his country’s growing jihad.
His story traces the arc of Al-Qaeda’s decades-long struggle and growth from a small group of embittered exiles to an ideology seized upon by militants locked in conflicts across the Muslim world.
Like many Libyan jihadists, Abu Anas al-Libi — whose real name is Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie — was hounded out of his native country during Moamer Kadhafi’s brutal crackdown on Islamists in the 1990s.
The computer expert was welcomed with open arms by bin Laden’s fledgling group, then based in Sudan, and according to a US indictment helped plan Al-Qaeda’s first major attack — the bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people.
After more than a decade on the run, Libi and other former Al-Qaeda operatives returned to Libya after the outbreak of the 2011 uprising against Kadhafi.
As veterans of conflicts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they enjoyed a certain notoriety among the younger generation of Islamist rebels, and some established camps and recruited new fighters.
A few still operate training camps for Libyans and foreigners alike who hope to join the war in Syria, a diplomat posted in the eastern city of Benghazi said on condition of anonymity.
And yet many analysts believe Libya’s Islamist militias have taken on a life of their own, refusing to formally ally themselves with Al-Qaeda because they see themselves more powerful than the group.
Ansar al-Sharia, for example, which is believed to have launched the September 11, 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, killing a US ambassador and three other Americans, has no apparent links to Al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“There are several groups that share a broad ideological affinity with Al-Qaeda insofar as they advocate a state based on Islamic law and nurture hostility against the West,” said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“There is also evidence that individuals who in the past had contacts with senior Al-Qaeda operatives are in Libya today. But none of this alone indicates that these individuals and groups are currently direct affiliates of the organisation.”
Jihadists, but not Al-Qaeda
Since the fall and slaying of Kadhafi in October 2011 Libya has been the scene of several bombings and other attacks on Western targets and Libyan security forces.
“Certainly, there are Al-Qaeda sympathisers in Libya, as there are elsewhere, even in the United States, but there are no Al-Qaeda jihadists in Libya,” said Fraj Najem, a Tripoli-based analyst.
“There is no concrete evidence of an Al-Qaeda presence in Libya.”
As far as Libi is concerned, Najem insists he ceased all Al-Qaeda related activities after his return, an assertion backed by family members and others close to Libi, who insist he led a quiet life, rarely venturing out except to attend prayers at a nearby mosque.
Amor Bushaala, an analyst based in Benghazi, widely seen as a haven for Islamists, points out that while eastern Libya has seen scores of attacks claimed by Islamists, none have been attributed to Al-Qaeda.
Observers have however pointed to apparent links between Libyan groups and Al-Qaeda offshoots operating across North Africa, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Signatories in Blood founded by former AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Libi is reportedly being held aboard a US naval ship in the Mediterranean, where he is being interrogated about Al-Qaeda’s future plans in Libya and elsewhere.
And yet, two decades after joining bin Laden’s surprisingly resilient movement, he may have very little to say.