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‘Imperfect Intelligence’ Said to Hinder U.S. Raid on Militant in Somalia

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

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The reinforcements have already started arriving, armed extremists posted along the coastline and the rest of town, guarding against any more attacks on their stronghold, witnesses say. People suspected of spying for the enemy have been rounded up and arrested, residents say, adding to a sense that the worst is far from over.

Since American Special Forces were forced to retreat during a raid on a coastal Somali town on Saturday, the Shabab militant group has tried to use the clash as a morale jolt and propaganda tool, posting pictures of abandoned American equipment and boasting that its fighters beat back the same Navy SEALs featured in movies and video games — the same unit that got Osama bin Laden.

But with President Obama warning of continued strikes on terrorism suspects and the Somali government vowing to push the Shabab out of their remaining strongholds with the help of neighboring armies, the tenor on the ground was not so universally celebratory. Residents in Baraawe, where the raid took place, said the Shabab were furious about the possibility that informants had given up the compound’s location and were bracing for the fighting to come.

“We’re going to have to continue to go after them,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday in a news conference, referring to extremists who exploit porous borders, widespread poverty and weak states, particularly in Africa. “We’re not going to farm out our defense.”

The American raid in enemy territory was never going to be easy, particularly not against the well-armed, experienced fighters of the Shabab. But American officials say the operation quickly became even more difficult when Navy SEALs discovered many more civilians than they had expected, making for the kind of “imperfect intelligence” that ended up scuttling the mission.

The target of the raid was Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, who uses the nom de guerre Ikrimah and is suspected of helping orchestrate a series of grenade attacks and shootings that have killed Kenyan civilians and security personnel.

According to a Kenyan intelligence report, he has been connected to plots against Kenya’s Parliament, the United Nations office in Nairobi, Kenyan military installations, an Ethiopian restaurant in the Kenyan capital and an airport, none of which materialized.

But perhaps most important, he is seen as a pivotal connection for an array of extremists across vast distances, from Tanzania to Yemen — a veteran militant with intimate knowledge of the ties among Kenyan terrorists, the Shabab and Al Qaeda.

Planning for the raid to capture him began weeks ago, American officials said, but after the deadly siege on the Westgate mall in Nairobi last month the operation took on special urgency. By snatching such an international planner, American officials appeared intent on uncovering the next Westgate before it happened, particularly before a similar attack could take place on an American company or embassy in the region, or perhaps even in the mainland United States.

The Navy SEALs approached the coast under cover of darkness on Saturday, killing several Shabab militants and escaping without any casualties of their own. But they retreated empty-handed, failing to seize Mr. Abdikadir or the potential trove of intelligence he may possess.

The intelligence flaws were partly to blame, American officials said. As a group of about 20 commandos entered the Shabab compound, they encountered far more civilians than they had anticipated, including women and children, American officials briefed on the operation said.

When the gun battle with Shabab fighters erupted, not only was the element of surprise lost, but the mission commander also feared that a prolonged firefight could kill large numbers of civilians.

“The variables were increasing, not decreasing,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the operation.

In a statement, the Pentagon spokesman George Little said, “While the operation did not result in Ikrima’s capture, U.S. military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on Al Shabab leadership at any time of our choosing.”

But there is also the question of whether, by engaging the group so aggressively, the United States may have made itself more of a target. The Shabab have claimed responsibility for deadly strikes in Uganda and Kenya, two nations that have sent troops to fight it in recent years, and the group has killed scores of civilians in what it has called reprisals for military incursions into Somalia.

The United States has fought the Shabab directly as well, conducting missile and air attacks against Somali militants. But the American attacks have been sporadic, and the raid in Baraawe was the most significant operation by American troops in Somalia since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda operative, in a raid near the town four years ago.

The Shabab were supposed to be on the run. The Somali militant group had lost ground and manpower. But the raid served as an object lesson in the group’s tenacity and adaptability. Nor was it the first such attack repulsed by the Shabab. A hostage-rescue mission by French special forces in January failed, leading to the deaths of two French soldiers and the hostage, a French intelligence officer.

Future clashes seemed likely. On Tuesday, the Somali government pledged to “liberate” Baraawe and other areas the Shabab still control.

“Baraawe is the heart of the area controlled by Shabab, and it is the only remaining port they have where foreign fighters can get into Somalia by sea,” said a United Nations official with responsibility for tracking events in Somalia.

The target of the raid, Mr. Abdikadir, is seen as being central to the regional threat presented by the Shabab. “He has been very significant in facilitating networks, leading outside of Somalia especially in the wider East African region,” said Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group. “He’s been around for a long time.”

While the United States managed to seize another high-profile target on Saturday in Libya — capturing Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people — some analysts described Mr. Abdikadir as the more relevant of the two.

“In many respects, he was the more valuable of the two targets this past weekend,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Mr. Abdikadir’s knowledge is “more current,” he said, with contacts that stretched to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“That’s why they didn’t wait for him to take a road trip and drop a Hellfire on him,” Mr. Pham said. “He taps into the different groups, moves people around, uses them for channels of resources or recruits.”

While Mr. Abdikadir’s involvement in the Westgate attack — if any — is unknown, “he had the safe houses, the networks to set it up,” Mr. Pham said. He was “someone capable of executing,” Mr. Pham said.

The United Nations official said that Mr. Abdikadir was also thought to have helped plan the deadly storming of the United Nations compound in Mogadishu in June, which some analysts have compared to the Westgate attack in its tactics.

Mr. Abdikadir is believed to have been a protégé of Qaeda operatives in East Africa, including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Mr. Nabhan, both of whom have been killed. According to Mr. Pham, Mr. Abdikadir first moved to Somalia around 2006, where he commanded fighters from Kenya, including ethnic Kenyans and members of the Somali diaspora who had returned to fight.

In recent years, the American strategy for fighting the Shabab has been largely to contain and outsource, supporting troops from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and elsewhere in the direct military operation against the group. That strategy was called into question after militants stormed the Westgate shopping mall, killing more than 60 people and reminding the world that East Africa is home to a significant cross-border terrorist threat. The Shabab claimed responsibility for the siege.

The raid on Saturday raised the question of whether the American military focus would now intensify. “If this is followed up with more military and covert actions against Shabab, it may signal a real shift in strategy,” said Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College.


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