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Elite U.S. team questions seized al Qaeda leader on Navy ship

Protesters burn a replica of the U.S. flag during a protest against the capture of Nazih al-Ragye, in Benghazi October 7, 2013. REUTERS/Esam
Protesters burn a replica of the U.S. flag during a protest against the capture of Nazih al-Ragye, in Benghazi October 7, 2013. REUTERS/Esam

By Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An elite American interrogation team is questioning the senior al Qaeda figure who was seized by special operations forces in Libya and then whisked onto a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea, U.S. officials said on Monday.

Nazih al-Ragye, better known by the cover name Abu Anas al-Liby, is being held aboard the USS San Antonio, an amphibious transport dock ship, the officials said.

He is being questioned by the U.S. High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an inter-agency unit created in 2009 and housed in the FBI's National Security Branch. The group specializes in garnering information from terrorism suspects to prevent planned attacks.

A suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians, Liby was snatched on the streets of Tripoli on Saturday and quickly taken out of the North African country.

The successful capture of Liby and a failed weekend attempt by U.S. commandos to nab an Islamist leader in Somalia offered evidence that the United States is still willing to use ground troops to seize wanted militants.

But, analysts say, it is too early to tell whether such operations might eventually mean a diminished focus on the armed drone strikes central to President Barack Obama's counterterrorism policy.

The raid in Tripoli was carried out by the U.S. Army's special operations Delta Force, an official said. Liby's son, Abdullah al Ragye, 19, told reporters that men pulled up in four cars, drugged his father, dragged him from his vehicle and drove off with him.

Liby is wanted by the FBI, which gives his age as 49 and had offered a $5 million reward for help in capturing him. He was indicted in 2000 along with 20 other al Qaeda suspects including Osama bin Laden and current global leader of the militant network, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Liby's indictment was filed in New York, making that a possible venue for a civilian, rather than military, trial.

One U.S. official said he might face prosecution in New York, but the U.S. government has not announced its plans and no decision has been made.

Liby's capture provoked a complaint about the "kidnap" from the Western-backed Libyan prime minister. U.S. officials declined to say if the Libyan government was given advance notice.

The White House defended the U.S. action. It marked the use of "rendition" - seizing a terrorism suspect in a foreign country without extradition proceedings, a practice heavily criticized internationally under former President George W. Bush but which Obama has reserved the right to use selectively.

"He is clearly al Qaeda and he is clearly wanted on charges," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters of Liby's case. "When we are able to, we prefer to capture someone like Mr. al-Liby."

SOMALIA RAID

The capture in Tripoli came the same weekend that a Navy SEAL team swooped into Somalia in an operation targeting a senior al Shabaab figure known as Ikrima, whom U.S. officials described as a foreign commander for the organization.

Obama, who ordered the SEAL raid that killed bin Laden in 2011, approved both operations but they were planned separately. "It is a coincidence that they happened at the same time," Carney said

The Somalia raid was designed to capture Ikrima, but the SEAL team broke off the mission when it became apparent that capturing him would not be feasible without a heavy risk of civilian casualties and to the SEAL team itself, officials said.

"If the intent was to kill him, we have other ways to do that," said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.

After arriving in the town of Barawe, there was a firefight with al Shabaab militants who U.S. officials say sustained multiple casualties. Ikrima's status was unclear.

As the situation escalated, the commander on the ground made decision to pull out.

Ikrima, whose real name is Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar, was linked with now-dead al Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who had roles in the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, U.S. officials said.

Despite his status within al Shabaab, Ikrima is not seen as particularly close to al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, one U.S. official said.

Officials say the U.S. operation in Somalia was planned weeks ago and was not in direct response to last month's al Shabaab attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi that killed at least 67.

A U.S. official, said the two commando operations did not represent a change in counterterrorism strategy - even though Obama insisted in a speech in May that he wanted to scale back the used of armed drones, a tactic that he has controversially used against militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The official said the two weekend raids were "capture" operations in places where it was considered practical, but that in riskier areas like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border drone strikes remained the preferred option.

Micah Zenko, a counterterrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said that while special operations can put American forces at risk, it offers the potential benefit of interrogating suspects for intelligence on future attacks.

"You'd take information over corpses any day of the week," he said.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara)

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