CAIRO – The Libyan militant accused by Washington in the killing of the U.S. ambassador told The Associated Press on Monday he's not worried about being next on the list for capture by the Americans after the U.S. commando raid that spirited a senior al-Qaida suspect out of Tripoli.
Ahmed Abu Khattala's confidence reflects the power that Islamic militants have grown to wield in Libya since the 2011 ouster of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. Militia groups, some of them inspired by al-Qaida, operated with virtual impunity in the country, with the central government too weak to take action against them.
Now many of the groups are furious over Saturday's U.S. special forces raid that captured Abu Anas al-Libi, wanted by the Americans for more than a decade over the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. Some have hinted at retaliation at U.S. and other foreign interests and have lashed out at the government, accusing it of colluding with Washington.
"We only fear God," Abu Khattala told AP by telephone from Benghazi, when asked if he is concerned he too could be snatched. Abu Khattala lives openly in the city, despite the indictment against him in a U.S. court over the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. He denies any role in the attack.
One prominent ultraconservative Muslim cleric, Sheik Ahmed bu-Sidra, warned that "all options are on the table" after the seizing of al-Libi, who was spirited out of the country and is now being held on a U.S. warship, according to American officials.
Moderates will be unable to silence possible retaliation by "insane Libyans who think death is a way to get close to God," bu-Sidra said.
For more than two years, Libya has been held hostage to increasingly powerful militias. Initially they were formed out of rebel brigades that fought Gadhafi's forces in 2011 uprising. The government has relied on them to carry out security duties because of the weakness of the army, but they have carved out spheres of power of their own, and many are made up of Islamic extremists.
No week passes without assassinations and abductions of top security officials and army officers, especially in Benghazi, the country's second largest city. In a particularly humiliating show of state weakness, the son of defense minister was kidnapped on Sept. 24.
"This is a crime against the state, aimed at preventing the minister from pushing ahead with his plan to put all the armed groups" under military control, the head of the defense committee in the legislature, Bel-Qassem Derizib said.
After al-Libi's capture, the Libyan government said in a statement that it knew nothing about the raid and had asked the Americans for "clarifications" about the operation. Prime Minister Ali Zidan left the country Sunday for a three-day visit to Morocco.
The operation — which came on the same day that U.S. Navy Seals attempted to capture an al-Qaida-linked militant in Somalia — signaled an American readiness to go after militants in nations where authorities are unable to do so.
That has raised expectations in Libya that further raids could follow, and many militants are convinced the Libyan government is colluding with the Americans.
"If the U.S. administration is cooperating with the (Libyan) government, then we hold the government responsible," Abu Khattala said. "If they did it without Libyan government's knowledge, then this is violation of the sovereignty of the Libyan state, which we reject."
"We don't want them here if they act against us," he said, referring to foreigners in Libya. "If you are a guest, then act respectfully, otherwise your presence is not welcome."
Abu Khattala was the commander of an Islamist militia group called the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade. However, he said he abandoned the militia and now works as a construction contractor. In earlier interview, Abu Khattala told the AP that he was not in hiding and had not been questioned by Libyan authorities over the consulate attack.
"I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles," he said.
Officials in the U.S. have said he and an unspecified number of others were named in a sealed complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. It's unclear what charges he and the others face.
A previously unknown coalition of Islamic militants in three eastern Libyan cities — Benghazi, al-Bayda and Darna — issued a statement Monday vowing to avenge al-Libi's capture — and blaming the government. It called the abduction a "shameful act which will cost the Libyan government a lot."
Several dozen members of the Ansar al-Shariah — al-Qaida inspired group blamed earlier for playing a role in the attack on US consulate protested on Sunday in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, denouncing al-Libi's abduction and criticizing the government. "Where are the men of Tripoli while this is happening?" they chanted, waving black Islamist flags.
A former militant with the Ansar al-Shariah militant group said the raid "just opened the doors of hell and it will be like the U.S. operation in Somalia. The youth here are ready to fight," he said.
He said that counterattacks will be unavoidable, including kidnappings. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his security.
An Islamist in Tripoli close to the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group warned that extremists could kidnap or attack Americans here. The LIFG was a longtime opponent of Gadhafi whose members fled the country with some defecting to join al-Qaida. Some members now hold positions of authority in the country.
He too spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of repercussions from militants.
"There is real fear of the reaction targeting foreigners, who are innocents and who have nothing to do with what the United States did here. Such as businessmen or companies," he said, "this will hurt Libya's economy at a time we are searching for stability and normalcy."