It's probably a bit of an understatement to suggest Libya's been going through tough times of late. If it's not militias going rogue and seizing oil fileds or teenage arms dealers making a killing, it's the country's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, being kidnapped from his hotel by an armed militia.
Early on Thursday morning, a large group of armed men raided the Corinthia hotel in the Libyan capital Tripoli, where Zeidan was staying, and whisked him away to an undisclosed location. The circumstances of his kidnapping are so far unclear; initially there were claims that they were acting under orders from the prosecutor general who had issued an arrest warrant for Zeidan but later both the prosecutor and the Justice Ministry denied this. A few hours later, however, Zeidan's release was secured and the country's embattled leader was delivered to his office. The events surrounding his release are unclear – some eyewitnesses say he was released after army forces accompanied by informal militas intervened and stormed the building he was being held in.
One theory for his kidnapping is that it was linked to the other high-profile abduction in Libya this week. On Saturday, Abu Anas al-Libi – one of the men rumoured to be behind the bombing of the US Embassy in Tanazania in 1998 that killed 224 people – was snatched from outside his home by armed men in balaclavas, who bundled him into a car before speeding off. The armed men were said to be working for US special forces, acting on an arrest warrant the US government issued in 2000, and the incident has sparked a major backlash against the Libyan government who have been accused of being complicit in his capture (an allegation they deny).
Since Libi's capture, many groups have vowed revenge against the US and a Libyan government they see as being in cahoots with Obama and co. It's possible that Zeidan's brief kidnapping could have been motivated by his alleged knowledge of the special forces raid.
After Libi's capture, I headed to the scene and managed to secure an interview with his son, Abdullah Nazih al-Ruqaie. Abdullah lived in Manchester between the ages of six and ten but he doesn’t support either City or United. "My father didn’t bring me up to follow football," he says. "I was brought up to follow the Koran."
We’re standing at a leafy junction in Tripoli’s upper class Nufleen district, right at the spot where Abdullah’s father was abducted on Saturday at 6.30AM. It’s sunny and quiet and one of Abdullah’s neighbours is unsuccessfully trying to jumpstart his car in the street. It feels like we could be in an English village on a really hot summer's day, were it not for 21-year-old Abdullah's T-shirt, which bears a slogan that reads in Arabic: "Allah is the only god and Mohammed is his prophet." It fits him snugly, he looks like he lifts weights.
Abdullah is the oldest living son of Abu Anas al-Libi, also known as Nazih Abdulhamad al-Ruqaie, who is accused of being a key intelligence agent for al-Qaeda, helping it to plan and carry out the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi as well as the aforementioned attack in Tanzania. In 1999, al-Libi was indicted by the US for his alleged role in the latter bombing and it put a five-million dollar bounty on his head – however, Abdullah insists that his father had no part in the bombings.
He says that his father left Libya in the 80s to go to Afghanistan and fight with the Mujahideen, but that he never forced his way into Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, and was never involved in any terrorist attacks. I slowly follow Abdullah around as he re-enacts his father’s abduction. As al-Libi pulls up after morning prayers there are three vehicles waiting for him: three white cars and a Mercedes van with blacked out windows. Then: blam. Another white car rams into his father’s black Hyundai 4x4. Now Abdullah is holding an imaginary handgun, pointed at his absent father’s head. Al-Libi is surrounded by men waving guns and shouting at him in Arabic to "get down" and "get out". They break the driver’s side window. Open the door and drag him onto the bonnet of the car. Now Abdullah is miming restraining his father over the bonnet of the Hyundai. His father’s body goes limp, he is bundled into the Mercedes van and all the vehicles speed off. It all happened just a couple of days ago but already the Hyundai’s window has been replaced and the only signs of the struggle are some small dents in its bumper and a fine dusting of broken glass on the road. Abdullah seems remarkably reasonable about the whole affair, considering his father is a man accused of extreme acts of mass violence – he sounds upset, sure, and he says he’s angry but he’s certainly not enraged. "If the Libyan government knew [about the abduction] then that is a disaster," he says. "If the government didn’t know, then that is an even bigger disaster."
The timing of this covert snatch and grab couldn’t be worse for Libya’s beleaguered Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan. Every day the country’s security crisis deepens and Zeidan seems to have less public support, ceding more ground to radical political groups like the federalists who are demanding autonomy for the east and have taken over Libya’s oil fields. Then there are the Islamic militants – aren't there always? – who have garnered new supporters through charity work and are spreading across the country.
Whether he was involved in al-Libi's abduction or not, it puts Zeidan in a tough and potentially embarrassing situation. If he says his government knew nothing about the operation, it'd make him look weak and incompetent. If he says he cooperated with the US to plot al-Libi's kidnapping, he would in effect be declaring war on Libya’s Islamic militants, some of which are currently employed by the state to provide security.
In the end, Zeidan decided to deny all knowledge and plead ignorance. There have been daily protests by extremist groups in the east of Libya since the snatch. The most vocal have been Ansar al-Sharia, who have openly expressed admiration for al-Qaeda in the past and were linked to the 2012 raid that killed US ambassador Chris Stevens. After the abduction of al-Libi, Ansar al-Sharia released a statement, saying "America is waging a war against Islam." It also accused the US of "arresting whoever they want without accountability" and ignoring "its own corrupt laws when it comes to applying them to Muslims". Clearly, this isn't going to have the members of Libya's government sleeping any easier at night, and they've scrambled to try to get a handle on a situation that is threatening to further undermine their waning authority. Senior officials have met with Abdullah and his uncle. The US Ambassador, Deborah Jones, was summoned by Libya’s Justice Minister to provide an explanation, and Libya’s congress issued a statement calling on the US to return al-Libi so that he can stand trial in Tripoli. As we talk outside al-Libi's house, youths from around the neighbourhood sidle up to see what’s going on. One of them is Abdullah’s younger brother, who is skinny and angry and asks accusingly if I am American. A couple of others slap hands with Abdullah, offering him their condolences. "Everyone around here knew he was wanted by the US," says Abdullah, when he turns his attention back to me. "Often, when people first found he was a wanted man, they were apprehensive, but when they got to know him they realised that he could never have been involved in the things the Americans accuse him of. All we can do now is pray that god will protect him." Follow Wil on Twitter: @bilgribs More stories from Libya: Hanging Out with the Rebel's Who've Seized Control of Libya's Oil Fields Libyans Are Living On the Absolute Cusp of All-Out Anarchy Libya Is Getting Better and Better for Teenage Arms Dealers