By Ernesto Londono and Scott Wilson Washington Post
U.S. Navy SEALs carried out an overnight raid on the Somali seaside home of a leader of the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab, U.S. officials said Saturday, an operation that suggests how worried Washington has become about the threat posed by an organization that recently launched an attack on a shopping mall in neighboring Kenya.
A U.S. official said the aim of the raid, which took place Friday, was to take a “high-value” al-Shabab militant into custody, but the militant was not seized.
“U.S. personnel took all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties and disengaged after inflicting some al-Shabab casualties,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert operation. “We are not in a position to identify those casualties.”
Separately, another U.S. official confirmed that the United States was involved in an operation in Libya on Saturday to capture a member of al-Qaeda who is suspected of involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a Libyan known by the alias Anas al-Libi, was detained in Tripoli. A second American official said Washington intends to bring Ruqai to the United States to stand trial.
Libya’s government said Sunday that it had not been consulted ahead of the U.S. operation, which it deemed “a kidnapping” of a Libyan citizen, who it said, should have been tried on Libyan soil.
“Since hearing the news, the Libyan government has been in contact with American authorities and has asked them to offer clarification,” the government said in a statement.
Libya and the United States have a “strategic partnership,” the statement said. “The government hopes that this strategic partnership will not be at risk as a result of this incident, and that communication between the two governments will be sufficient to rectify this situation,” it added.
Since the bloody 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of Moammar Gaddafi, Libya has been wracked by lawlessness, the growth of extremism, and sporadic outbreaks of violence between rival militias. The country’s now-elected government wields little authority across the country’s cities and open desert and mountains, where militias hold both the guns and the clout.
Even Libya’s armed forces, which have received training and funding from the United States in an effort to develop its capacity to deal with terrorist threats, expressed surprise at Ruqai’s bold capture in their capital. “We found out from media outlets just like everybody else,” Aly Sheikhi, a spokesman for the Libyan armed forces chief of staff. He said he had no other information on the incident.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Saturday night that Ruqai is “currently lawfully detained by the U.S. military in a secure location outside Libya.”
A brother of Ruqai told the Associated Press his brother was seized early Saturday after three cars pulled up next to his and their occupants smashed his window and forced him out of his vehicle. The brother described the abductors as foreign-looking “commandos.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House intelligence committee, called Ruqai’s capture “a major blow against the remnants of al-Qaeda’s core.” The lawmaker said Ruqai was “thought to be in Libya to help set up new cells and recruit new members.”
There was no sign that the two operations were related, but they underscored how active U.S. intelligence and military agencies remain in African countries with active cells of Islamic militants.
In the first high-level remarks on the two operations, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said they show that “members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.”
Kerry spoke Sunday in Bali, Indonesia, where he is attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in President Obama’s place.
“Our personnel in the armed forces conducted two operations in order to continue to hunt down those responsible for acts of terrorism,” Kerry said. “We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in it’s [sic] effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
The operation in the Somali town of Baraawe was in response to the Sept. 21 attack on the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi, which killed at least 67 people and significantly raised the profile of al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the raid.
Al-Shabab fighters repelled Saturday’s assault, which killed at least one of the group’s fighters, a spokesman for the organization told the Reuters news agency.
“Westerners in boats attacked our base at Baraawe beach,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, the al-Shabab spokesman. “No planes or helicopters took part in the fight.”
The use of Navy SEALs suggested that American officials had hoped to take members of the group into custody or collect physical evidence. Strikes on terrorism suspects that aim solely to kill are typically carried out with drone or missile strikes, so as to not put ground troops in harm’s way. The U.S. official said the raid was suspended before the targeted leader could be seized out of concern that a more aggressive assault may have resulted in civilian casualties.
“The U.S. military attempts to capture terrorists when at all possible,” the official said.
The U.S. Navy and allied navies maintain a robust presence along Africa’s eastern shore, where piracy has become widespread.
Pentagon spokesman Little would only say that officials were not prepared to provide details of the raid, which he called “a counterterrorism operation against a known al-Shabab terrorist.”
Western officials have grown alarmed that a group that was believed to have had limited ability to operate outside Somalia is now willing to call on supporters, including dual-national Somalis, to carry out attacks abroad.
Officials did not say which leader was the target. The involvement of Navy SEALs in Saturday’s raid, which was first reported by the New York Times, appeared to mark the boldest U.S. strike in Somalia since a 2009 operation that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaeda figure who was running the network’s operations in Somalia.
Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, emerged in 2006 after invading Ethiopian troops drove out the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group that once controlled large swaths of Somalia.
Al-Shabab tapped into a widespread hatred of foreigners to build support across much of southern and central Somalia. But its popularity was short-lived because of the militia’s strict implementation of Islamic law, including public amputations, stonings and other harsh measures.
Last month’s mall attack came as U.S. intelligence had assessed al-Shabab to be weakening in Somalia in the face of an expanded multilateral African military force and a new civilian government.
The administration focused on the group within months of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, when senior Pentagon officials proposed targeting al-Shabab training camps in Somalia. Obama’s national security team rejected the proposal, arguing that the group was focused primarily on domestic attacks.
At the same time, administration officials grew concerned that a number of young men of Somali origin, who had obtained U.S. or European passports, had returned to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
There were no publicly disclosed U.S. attacks against al-Shabab figures in Somalia for two years after the strike that killed Nabhan, which was carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces aboard helicopters.
Nabhan was believed to have played a leading role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In early 2011, after noting what senior officials said were increasing ties between some of the al-Shabab leadership and the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the administration partially changed course. In a new policy, top al-Shabab figures with links to the Yemen group were placed on target lists. Obama authorized the first drone strike against two senior al-Shabab figures in Somalia in June 2011.
That remained the policy, and no further U.S. attacks had come to light until Saturday.
In congressional testimony this year, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that a weakened al-Shabab “remains focused on local and regional challenges” but is continuing to focus on “regional adversaries, including targeting U.S. and Western interests in east Africa.”
Ruqai, the Libyan who was taken into custody, is listed as one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists. The State Department, through its “Rewards for Justice” program, offered a $5 million bounty for information that led to his capture. He has been indicted in the Southern District of New York for his alleged role in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi on Aug. 7, 1998.
Saturday’s operation in Tripoli appeared to represent a coup for U.S. intelligence agencies in a country struggling to establish a civilian government after decades of authoritarian rule and a short civil war in 2011 that gave rise to powerful militias.
Karen DeYoung and Sari Horwitz in Washington, Anne Gearan in Bali, Abigail Hauslohner in Beirut, Lara El Gibaly in Cairo, and Sudarsan Raghavan in Nairobi contributed to this report.