WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s decision to mount two risky attempts to capture Al Qaeda operatives in Africa reflects a reduced role for lethal CIA drone strikes and a growing prominence for the Pentagon in counter-terrorism operations, U.S. officials said Sunday.
In one raid, Navy SEALs stormed the coastal Somalia home of a leader of the Shabab, the Somali-based group that claimed responsibility for last month’s massacre in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. In that operation, the administration opted to put U.S. commandos at risk against a fixed target that could have been destroyed with bombs or missiles from the air.
U.S. intelligence had indications that a dozen or more family members and other noncombatants were present at the compound, raising the risk of civilian casualties in any missile strike, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the classified operation.
he suspect sought in the raid was not captured, and the SEALs ultimately withdrew, officials said. A senior administration official identified the target as a Kenyan of Somali origin named Ikrina who commands foreign fighters for the Shabab and has links to two deceased Al Qaeda operatives. It was unclear whether Ikrina is his full name.
The official said the assumption is that Ikrina survived.
In Libya, an operation carried out jointly by the CIA, the FBI and U.S. special operations forces captured a long-time suspected Al Qaeda leader who goes by the alias Abu Anas al Liby. He has been indicted on charges that he was involved in planning Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
That suggested a common thread in the two raids. The two deceased Al Qaeda operatives linked to the suspect in the Somali attack, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, played roles in the 1998 Nairobi bombing as well as in attacks in 2002 on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, according to the senior administration official.
The Libyan operation relied on an element of surprise: The U.S. had determined that Al Liby used minimal personal security and was moving openly in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
He was detained without incident, officials said.
The results of the two raids — the successful capture of Al Liby and the apparent failure to capture the Shabab leader — illustrate the risks and potential rewards of aiming for captures rather than drone strikes.