Libyan pleads not guilty in 1998 embassy attacks
NEW YORK – A Libyan accused of helping al-Qaida orchestrate the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges Tuesday, his first appearance in a case highlighting the Obama administration’s push to use civilian courts rather than the Guantanamo Bay military prison and drone strikes to nail high-profile terrorism suspects.
The defendant, Abu Anas al-Libi, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed Ruqai, entered the courtroom in Lower Manhattan looking far more gaunt than he did in the “wanted” picture circulated by the FBI after his indictment 13 years ago.
With sunken eyes, hollow cheeks and a bushy gray and red beard, he appeared older than his 49 years. Ruqai wore baggy gray sweat pants, a long-sleeved black shirt and black flip-flops and socks. His hands were cuffed behind his back, but they were released during the brief arraignment, in which he asked the court to refer to him as Ruqai rather than his nom de guerre.
Ruqai arrived in New York over the weekend after being questioned for several days on a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean following his Oct. 5 arrest in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. U.S. forces carried out the surprise raid that resulted in the capture of Ruqai, one of more than 20 people accused of working with al-Qaida to carry out the bombings at the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998.
The charges against him include conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and conspiracy to destroy U.S. property. A 150-page indictment naming Ruqai and others accused in the bombings alleges that beginning in late 1993, Ruqai was involved in discussions with al-Qaida members about attacking the embassies in retaliation for U.S. military action in Somalia. The indictment says he “conducted visual and photographic surveillance” of the Nairobi embassy compound the same year.
Twelve Americans were among the 224 killed in the attacks. Of those named in the original indictment, nine have died or been killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Somalia, including al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Six are serving life sentences in U.S. prisons. Several remain at large.
Ruqai’s court-appointed attorney, David Patton, said after the hearing that the indictment only mentions Ruqai “in a mere three paragraphs” relating to conduct in 1993 and 1994.
“The allegation is that he met with al-Qaida members about a possible bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, that ended up taking place five years later in 1998. There is no allegation that he had any connection to al-Qaida after 1994,” Patton said.
Ruqai’s family has said he suffers from hepatitis C and has had nothing to do with al-Qaida since the mid-1990s.
Ruqai’s next court appearance was scheduled for Tuesday.