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Fugitive al Qaeda leader was hardly lying low in Libya, photos show

Libyan Political Dialogue

Abu Anas al-Libi

A correction has been made to this article. The man pictured is not Abu Anas al-Libi.

Despite a $5 million reward, Abu Anas al-Libi, the reputed al Qaeda leader snatched off the streets of Tripoli by U.S. commandos, made high-profile appearances in Libya in the last two years, enjoying the adulation of crowds, public honors and renewed stature for his role in helping topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi, according to U.S. officials and photos obtained by NBC News.

Al-Libi, 49, who was indicted in 2000 in connection with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa two years earlier, was not maintaining a low profile in Tripoli despite the charges against him and the reward, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's been out in public participating as if he had immunity," said one.

The images, found on al Qaeda web forums by the security firm Flashpoint Intelligence and provided NBC News, show al-Libi receiving an honor from an Islamic group on a street in Tripoli, surrounded by well-wishers. The photographs first appeared Sunday -- the day after his capture -- in a Libyan media outlet, Libyan Political Dialogue. The account identified him as “al-Libi” -- his al Qaeda nom de guerre -- not his birth name, Nazih Abdul Hamed Al-Raghie.

It described the event as a "celebration honoring Abu Anas al-Libi based on his participation in the Libyan uprising and the death of his son in it." Al-Libi's son, Abdel Rahman, died in the rebels' final assault on Tripoli in 2011, say U.S. officials.

U.S. officials say that in the final days of the Libyan uprising, al-Libi returned to Tripoli and added his voice to calls for the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime and encouraged his son to join the rebels.

Al-Libi, who was snatched by U.S. commandos outside his home in Tripoli on Oct. 5, is undergoing questioning aboard a U.S. Navy warship in the Mediterranean Sea.

Libyan Political Dialogue

Abu Anas al-Libi

The images, the first known photos of him since 2000, are not dated but are believed to have been taken last year. They show al-Libi accepting the honor and speaking to the crowd, flanked by a large Libyan flag. A U.S. official said it's uncertain whether the event was sponsored by the Libyan government, but the crowd around him appears to show Libyan militia members and locals.

The U.S. helped the rebels topple Gadhafi, but concern has been growing in Washington about the post-Gadhafi era and the Libyan government’s inability to tamp down Islamist sentiment and operations, such as the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Evan Kohlmann, a senior partner with Flashpoint Intelligence and an NBC News analyst, said that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement had noticed not just the "celebration" but other appearances a- Libi has made in recent months, leading to a belief he continues to command respect among radical Islamists.

Libyan Political Dialogue

Abu Anas al-Libi

"Anas al-Libi appears to have gained some newfound respect and admiration among both Libyan revolutionaries and North African jihadists for the 'martyrdom' of his son during fighting against the Gadhafi regime," said Kohlmann. "It is this latter development that has raised questions about the degree to which al-Libi is merely a onetime historical figure from al Qaeda's mid-level leadership, or whether he has evolved into a more significant regional threat."

A U.S. official also told NBC News that al-Libi was believed to have continued involvement in "fundamentalist" activities after returning to his homeland in 2011, but the official declined to provide any details.

Officials say al-Libi played a key role in in the twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998, attacks that killed 223 people, including 12 Americans. In a federal grand jury indictment in New York, he is accused of helping plan the attacks and of conducting surveillance of the embassy and other diplomatic facilities in Nairobi. According to testimony at an earlier embassy bombing trial, it was al-Libi, who was in London at the time of the attacks, who first proposed the bombing of foreign embassies in 1993.

Another official said that his interrogators aboard the USS San Antonio are likely asking al-Libi not so much about the embassy bombings, but about more recent matters, including what ties he may have with Al Qaeda Central, the terrorist group formerly led by Osama Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda affiliate that has been growing in strength throughout North Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which brought change to a number of governments there.

The official declined to provide details of what the U.S. would want from al-Libi -- apart from any information he may have on impending attacks -- but suggested that his relationship with AQIM would be at the top of the list.

Because al-Libi may not yet have been given his Miranda warning, interrogators would be smart to focus on things that thappened since the embassy bombings in 1998, said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. Otherwise, she said, it could present his defense counsel with opportunities to muddy the waters at trial.

"Think about it," says Greenberg. "What they are asking him about may not come up in a trial based on the embassy bombing indictment. What they want to ask him about are current things, persons, locations, strategies."

Al-Libi is also likely to be questioned about his time in Iran. Not long after he fled Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks and the collapse of the Taliban regime, he and his family were captured by the Iranians and spent the next four years in a dank prison cell, according to an interview his surviving son, Abdullah, told reporters last weekend. By the time al-Libi was permitted to leave Iran in 2011, he had long since abandoned al Qaeda's philosophy, his son said.

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