MOGADISHU, Somalia – In a stealthy seaside assault in Somalia and in a raid in Libya’s capital, U.S. military forces on Saturday struck out against Islamic extremists who have carried out terrorist attacks in East Africa, snatching a man allegedly involved in the bombings of U.S. embassies 15 years ago but missing a man linked to last month’s attack on a Nairobi shopping mall.
A U.S. Navy SEAL team slipped ashore near a southern Somalia town before the al-Qaida-linked militants rose for dawn prayers, U.S. and Somali officials told The Associated Press. The raid on a house in the town of Barawe targeted a specific al-Qaida suspect related to the mall attack, but the operation did not get its target, one current and one former U.S. military official told AP.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the raid publicly.
Within hours of the Somalia attack, relatives of a Libyan al-Qaida leader wanted for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania said he was kidnapped outside his house Saturday in Tripoli, Libya. A U.S. official said it was American forces who captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Anas al-Libi, who has been wanted by the U.S. for more than a decade.
The U.S. official says there have been no U.S. casualties in the Libya operation. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
Saturday’s raid in Somalia occurred 20 years after the famous “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu in which a mission to capture Somali warlords went awry after Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters. Eighteen 18 U.S. forces were killed in the battle, and it marked the beginning of the end of that U.S. military mission to bring stability to the Horn of Africa nation. Since then, U.S. military intervention has been limited to missile attacks and lightning operations by special forces.
A resident of Barawe – a seaside town 150 miles south of Mogadishu – said by telephone that heavy gunfire woke up residents before dawn prayers.
The U.S. forces attacked a two-story beachside house in Barawe where foreign fighters lived, battling their way inside, said an al-Shabab fighter who gave his name as Abu Mohamed and who said he had visited the scene. Al-Shabab has a formal alliance with al-Qaida, and hundreds of men from the U.S., Britain and Middle Eastern countries fight alongside Somali members of al-Shabab.
A separate U.S. official described the action in Barawe as a capture operation against a high-value target. The official said U.S. forces engaged al-Shabab militants and sought to avoid civilian casualties. The U.S. forces disengaged target after inflicting some casualties on fighters, said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name and insisted on anonymity.
The leader of the al-Qaida-linked Somali militant group al-Shabab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Ahmed Godane, claimed responsibility for the attack on the upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, a four-day terrorist siege that began on Sept. 21 and killed at least 67 people. A Somali intelligence official said the al-Shabab leader was the target of Saturday’s raid.
An al-Shabab official, Sheikh Abdiaziz Abu Musab, said in an audio message that the raid failed to achieve its goals.
Al-Shabab and al-Qaida have flourished in Somalia for years. Some of the plotters of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania hid out there.
Barawe has seen Navy SEALs before. In September 2009 a daylight commando raid in Barawe killed six people, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the most-wanted al-Qaida operatives in the region and an alleged plotter in the 1998 embassy bombings that killed more than 220 people.
The Libyan al-Qaida leader also wanted for the bombings, al-Libi, is believed to have returned to Libya during the 2011 civil war that led to the ouster and killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
His brother, Nabih, said al-Libi was parking outside his house early Saturday after dawn prayers when three vehicles encircled him, smashed the car’s window and seized his gun before grabbing him and taking him away. The brother said el-Libi’s wife saw the kidnapping from her window and described the abductors as foreign-looking armed “commandos.”
Al-Libi is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head.
A resident of Barawe who gave his name as Mohamed Bile said militants in Barawe closed down the town in the hours after the assault, and that all traffic and movements have been restricted. Militants were carrying out house-to-house searches, likely to find evidence that a spy had given intelligence to a foreign power used to launch the attack, he said.
“We woke up to find al-Shabab fighters had sealed off the area and their hospital is also inaccessible,” Bile told The Associated Press by phone. “The town is in a tense mood.”
Al-Shabab later posted pictures on the Internet of what it said was U.S. military gear left behind in the raid. Two former U.S. military officers identified the gear as the kind U.S. troops carry. Pictures showed items including bullets, an ammunition magazine, a military GPS device and a smoke and flash-bang grenade used to clear rooms. The officials could not confirm if those items had come from the raid.
In Kenya, military spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir on Saturday gave the names of four fighters implicated in the Westgate Mall attack as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr, names that were first broadcast by a local Kenyan television station.
Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said via email that al-Kene and Umayr are known members of al-Hijra, the Kenyan arm of al-Shabab. He added that Nabhan may be a relative of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the target of the 2009 Navy SEALs raid in Barawe.
The identities of the four men from the mall attack came as a Nairobi station obtained and broadcast the closed circuit television footage from Westgate. The footage shows four attackers calmly walking through a storeroom inside the complex, holding machine guns. One of the men’s pant legs appears to be stained with blood, though he is not limping. It is unclear if the blood is his, or that of his victims’.
Government statements shortly after the four-day siege began on Sept. 21 indicated between 10 to 15 attackers were involved, but indications since then are that fewer attackers took part, though the footage may not show all of the assailants.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Dozier reported Charlotte, N.C. Rukmini Callimachi contributed from Nairobi. Matthew Lee in Bali, Indonesia contributed to this report.