WASHINGTON – U.S. Navy SEALs carried out a pre-dawn raid on the Somali seaside home of a leader of the al-Qaida-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. “We are not in a position to identify those casualties.”
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 took credit for the raid.
Al-Shabab fighters repelled Friday’s assault, which killed at least one of the group’s fighters, a spokesman for the Somali organization told the Reuters news agency. “Westerners in boats attacked our base at Baraawe beach,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab. “No planes or helicopters took part in the fight.”
The use of U.S. Navy SEALs suggested 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 drones or missiles, so as to not put ground troops in harm’s way. The U.S. official said the raid was suspended before the terrorist leader could be nabbed, 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. and its allies maintain a robust naval presence along Africa’s eastern shore, where piracy has become widespread.Pentagon spokesman George 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-Qaida 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 shopping 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 President Barack 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 American 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 American 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the administration partially changed course. Under 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.