Wednesday, October 09, 2013
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
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
“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
“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
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