Early Thursday morning, gunmen swarmed Tripoli's Corinthia Hotel and seized Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, rushing him and two guards away in vans. At the time, the government confirmed the abduction, saying that Zeidan "was taken to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group" of men, probably former rebels. By the afternoon, he had been freed. What happened, and who, ultimately, was to blame for the odd affair?
A coalition of militias called the the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries and Anti-Crime Committee immediately claimed responsibility for the seizure, but characterized it as an arrest. The group, made up of former fighters who helped depose Moammar Gadhafi, technically works for the Interior Ministry. Like other parts of the weak central government, the Ministry hired on former rebel militias to make up for the lack of a viable army or police force, and so it wouldn't have to fight the armed groups itself.
The Operation Room of Libya's Revolutionaries first said on its Facebook page that Zeidan was "arrested under the Libyan penal code... on the instructions of the public prosecutor." The public prosecutor's office, however, said it didn't order Zeidan's arrest.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
A spokesman for the Operation Room of Libya's Revolutionaries elaborated, pinning the seizure on the U.S. raid in Tripoli last weekend that nabbed an alleged leader of al Qaeda. He told Al Arabiya that Zeidan's arrest came "after the statement by John Kerry about the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, after he said the Libyan government was aware of the operation." (Al-Libi is the nom de guerre of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, indicted in U.S. court for the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.) It was a mischaracterization of Kerry's carefully worded phrasing, but indicative nonetheless of the blow the raid has caused to the Libyan government.
So, is the U.S. ultimately responsible for Zeidan's abduction, and the spiraling situation in Libya it represents? Maybe. Blame is like an onion, and the first layer obviously belongs to the militia itself.
Hashem Beshr, the head of one of the country's most powerful militia groups — the Supreme Security Committee for Tripoli — and a commander The Washington Post recently called "the most powerful man" in the capital, says the whole thing was basically a misunderstanding. The group took Zaidan based on false information that the public prosecutor had issued an arrest warrant for him, Beshr tells Bloomberg News.
But its also true that there's a lot of anger in Libya over the foreign abduction of one of its citizens, alleged terrorist or not. Before Zeidan's kidnapping, U.S. officials told The New York Times they feared the backlash against a second planned U.S. raid — to nab the suspected mastermind of the September 2012 attacks on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi — would be enough to topple Zeidan's government.
David Kirkpatrick and Gerry Mullany at The New York Times also note that Libyans are increasingly suspicious of American intentions in Libya:
Indirectly, at least, the U.S.'s abduction of Al-Libi seems to have led to Zeidan's odd ordeal. However, the questions remains whether it sparked a fire that will burn out of control.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.