White House: Timing of Africa raids ‘coincidence’

Olivier Knox
Protesters burn a replica of the U.S. flag during a protest against the capture of Liby in Benghazi
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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 Omran Al-Fetori

The White House on Monday dismissed the timing of weekend raids in which elite American commandos sought to capture two suspected al-Qaida figures as “coincidence.”

The Saturday operations in Libya and Somalia came one day after the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in the book “Black Hawk Down” and the movie of the same name. They also occurred on the date when President Barack Obama was supposed to leave on a trip to Asia — a voyage he canceled in the face of the government shutdown.

So was Obama trying to send a message to Congress with a national security victory? Or to remind world leaders gathered at an Asia-Pacific summit without him that the United States must be reckoned with?

“It's important to note that although they occurred at the same time, these were separate operations, approved separately, and when an approval like this happens, there is obviously discretion given to commanders as to when they initiate and fulfill those missions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “So it is a coincidence that they happened at the same time.”

Carney said that the suspected al-Qaida member captured in the Libyan operation, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, was “arrested” and is “in U.S. custody” but declined to say where. He also gave no information about whether al-Libi was being questioned, or by whom.

Carney also repeatedly noted that al-Libi was under U.S. indictment — but did not say explicitly whether he would face a federal trial or a military commission.

“We believe in a system that brings people to justice through indictment, and that's what, you know, we're witnessing now,” the spokesman said.

And National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Yahoo News that no decision had yet been made on al-Libi’s “ultimate disposition” — whether and where he would be tried.

But “such decisions are not made arbitrarily,” she said.

“On whether we'd consider Guantanamo, the president’s policy is clear on this issue: The administration is seeking to close Guantanamo, not add to its population,” she said. “Moreover, where there is an opportunity to prosecute an individual in either a military commission or our federal courts, we will do so. Our policy is that we will prosecute whenever feasible and in the national security interests of the United States.”

Secretary of State John Kerry had indicated Sunday that al-Libi would likely face trial.

“He will now have an opportunity to defend himself and to be appropriately brought to justice in a court of law,” Kerry said at a joint press appearance with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The Somalia operation failed to capture its target, officials said.