Pentagon officials Monday identified the target of a weekend raid in Somalia by U.S. special forces as a Somali-born Kenyan they said had close ties with two al Qaida militants linked to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the two al Qaida operatives linked to the Somalia raid’s target, who he named as Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, also had roles in 2002 terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists.
Little acknowledged that the predawn raid Saturday on a seaside villa in Baraawe, Somalia, failed to capture Abdikadir, who is also known as Ikrima, but he said it sent an important warning to the leaders of al Shabab, the al Qaida affiliate in the east Africa country.
“U.S. military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on al Shabaab leadership at any time of our choosing,” Little said.
Despite the new information, questions remained about why members of U.S. Navy Seal Team Six, a fabled U.S. commando unit that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, had been repulsed without their target after a 30-minute firefight.
The identification of Abdikadir as the target also raised new questions about the reason behind the raid, which earlier speculation had linked to last month’s assault on a Nairobi shopping mall that left at least 67 people dead. Al Shabab claimed responsibility for that attack.
Abdikadir, a Kenyan citizen of Somali descent, is thought to move frequently between Kenya and Somalia, but in announcing that Abdikadir had been the target, Little mentioned only his acquaintance with participants in the 1998 embassy bombings and the 2002 Mombasa attacks. The embassy bombings were also the public rationale for the capture in Tripoli, Libya, of a former lieutenant to al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in a special forces raid that took place almost simultaneously as the one in Somalia.
Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai, a Libyan also known as Abu Anas al Libi, has been indicted in New York for helping plan the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed more than 223 people, including two CIA agents and 10 other Americans. Al Libi was being held aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean and would likely face weeks of interrogation before being brought to the United States for trial, intelligence analysts said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the twin raids were conducted under the authorization of a measure Congress passed three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Al Libi had been one of four people indicted in 1998 for the embassy attacks who’d not been captured or killed. His name is also on a U.N. Security Council list of top al Qaeda leaders.
Ikrima, by contrast, did not appear to be widely known even to terrorism experts.
Little, though, said he’d been “closely associated” with two other key al Qaida operatives, Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, both of whom had been linked to the embassy bombing.
Fazul, who was indicted in New York for the embassy bombings, was killed in 2011 by Somali security forces at a roadblock in that country’s capital, Mogadishu.
Nabhan, who had not been indicted, was the former leader of al Qaida in Somalia. He died in a Navy SEAL raid in 2009 near Baraawe, Somalia, the scene of Saturday’s failed assault.
The weekend raids’ focus on two figures tied to terror attacks 15 years ago appeared to be at odds with criteria that President Barack Obama laid out for such operations in May.
“America does not take strikes to punish individuals,” Obama said then in a speech at the National Defense University. “We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”
At a news briefing Monday, reporters asked White House press secretary Jay Carney whether the United States had asked the Libyan government to extradite al Libi before launching the raid to nab him.
“What I can tell you is that we’re in regular communication with the Libyan government on a range of security and counterterrorism issues, and we don’t get into the specifics of those communications,” Carney said.
Carney declined to provide more details, though he suggested that al Libi may possess valuable information about al-Qaeda.
“It is our position that when we are able to, we prefer to capture someone like Mr. al Libi, and that’s what we did in this case,” Carney said.
Little intimated that the Somalia government may have been given notice of the raid there.
“Working in partnership with the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, the United States military will continue to confront the threat posed by al Shabab.”
In his National Defense University speech, Obama noted that the United States had “helped a coalition of African nations push al Shabab out of its strongholds” during earlier fighting in Somalia.
Carney said Obama signed off on both the Libya and Somalia raids conducted Saturday, but he stressed that they were two separate approvals for two different operations.
“It’s important to note that although it occurred at the same time, these were separate operations, approved separately,” Carney said. “And when an approval like this happens, there is obviously discretion given to commanders as to when they initiate and fulfill those missions. So it is a coincidence that they happened at the same time.”
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.