U.S. military forces strike in Libya, Somalia; capture wanted al Qaeda leader
(CNN) — In two raids nearly 3,000 miles apart, U.S. military forces went after two high-value targets over the weekend. And while officials have yet to say whether the operations were coordinated or directly related, they show Washington’s reach, capability and willingness to pursue alleged terrorists.
One operation took place Saturday in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, when U.S. forces captured Abu Anas al Libi, an al Qaeda leader wanted for his role in the deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
In the second raid, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs in southern Somalia targeted a top leader of Al-Shabaab, which was behind last month’s mall attack in Kenya. The SEALs came under fire and had to withdraw before they could confirm whether they killed their target, a senior U.S. official said.
“One could have gone without the other,” said retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, CNN’s military analyst. “But the fact that they did them both, I think, is a real signal that the United States — no matter how long it takes — will go after these targets.”
The operations come at a time when polls show the American public is skittish about more involvement in conflicts overseas. That means, Francona said, that others who might be in the U.S. government’s cross hairs could have more reason to worry.
Al Libi tied to U.S. embassy bombings
Al Libi, 49, has been high on the radar for years. He was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, with a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction.
He is alleged to have played a key role in the August 7, 1998, bombings of American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed and another 5,000 wounded in the Kenya attack; 11 died in the Tanzania incident.
He has been indicted on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, murder, destruction of American buildings and government property, and destruction of national defense utilities of the United States.
As early as December 2010, Libyan authorities told a United Nations committee that al Libi was living there, even giving a Tripoli address for him.
U.S. officials wanted al Libi, to face trial in an American court. But counterterrorism analysts told CNN in 2012 that al Libi may not have been apprehended because of the delicate security situation in much of Libya, where ex-jihadists — especially those who once belonged to the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group — held considerable sway since the campaign against and ultimate ouster of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The Saturday operation was conducted with the knowledge of the Libyan government, said one U.S. official. The Pentagon said late Saturday night that the U.S. military was holding al Libi in a “secure location” outside Libya.
“It’s a huge deal to get him,” said CNN’s Nic Robertson, who has long been covering al Qaeda. “He’s a big player in al Qaeda (and) he is in one of the key target areas, the north of Africa.”
Beyond any psychological impact on the terrorist group, al Libi’s capture could potentially yield a wealth of information about the al Qaeda’s plans and capabilities. The terrorist network has shown particular strength of late in Africa, something he might be able to shed light on.
“Clearly, he may have useful information about the strength of al Qaeda and the Islamists in Libya,” Robertson said. “He is somebody who is senior within al Qaeda. He was well respected, a good operative.”
The United States made significant efforts since those nearly simultaneous 1998 bombings to beef up its security at U.S. diplomatic posts. But as the September 11, 2012, attack on a U.S consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, showed, they are still very much under threat. The Benghazi attack killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Al-Shabaab blamed for Kenya mall attack
Al-Shabaab long has been a target of Washington as well: It was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2008. The group is seeking to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state, though it has other African countries as well.
The attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall thrust Al-Shabaab into the spotlight once again. Washington vowed to support Kenya’s government after the bloody raid, which killed at least 67 people.
The Al-Shabaab raid took place Friday in the southern Somalian port city of Barawe.
The Pentagon would only say the operation was against a “known Al-Shabaab terrorist.” But town residents told CNN the “foreign forces” came via speed boat and stormed a house believed to be a hideout for several top militant commanders, including the group’s top leader Ahmed abdi Godane, also known as Moktar Ali Zubeyr.
A senior U.S. official said the Navy SEALs inflicted some Al-Shabaab casualties, and came under fire.
They made the “prudent decision” to withdraw rather than continue combat, and couldn’t confirm whether they killed their target, the official said.
No U.S. personnel were injured or killed in the raid, another U.S. official said.
Abdiaziz Abu Musab, an Al-Shabaab spokesman, said at least one Al-Shabaab fighter was killed in the gunfight.
South-central Somalia is where most of the group’s foreign fighters and leaders live and is heavily guarded. The group there has been increasingly squeezed as Kenyan forces fight the group from the south and African Union forces come down from Mogadishu.
In the meantime, it’s become even closer to al Qaeda — with the two groups effectively merging last year, according to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen.
“This is a group that has adopted al Qaeda’s ideology wholesale,” Bergen said of Al-Shabaab. “The reason they attacked the mall was not only because it was Kenyan, but also because it attracted a fair number of Western businessmen and others living in Nairobi.”
By Barbara Starr. Evan Perez and Greg Botelho
CNN’s Elise Labott and Mayra Cuevas contributed to this report