CAIRO — U.S. commandos carried out raids Saturday in two far-flung African countries in a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects. U.S. troops assisted by FBI and CIA agents seized a suspected leader of al-Qaida on the streets of Tripoli, Libya, while Navy SEALs raided the seaside villa of a militant leader in a predawn firefight on the coast of Somalia.
In Tripoli, U.S. forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Liby, had a $5 million bounty on his head and his capture in broad daylight ended a 15-year manhunt.
In Somalia, the Navy SEAL team emerged before sunrise from the Indian Ocean and exchanged gunfire with militants at the home of a senior leader of al-Shabab, the Somali militant group. The raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, after a massacre by al-Shabab at a Nairobi shopping mall that killed more than 60 people two weeks ago.
The SEAL team was forced to withdraw before it could confirm that it had killed the al-Shabab leader, a senior U.S. security official said. Officials declined to identify the target.
Officials said the timing of the two raids was coincidental. But occurring on the same day, they underscored the rise of northern Africa as a haven for international terrorists. Libya has collapsed into the control of a patchwork of militias since the ouster of the Qaddafi government in 2011. Somalia, the birthplace of the Shabab, has lacked an effective central government for more than two decades.
With President Barack Obama locked in a standoff with congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for a policy reversal in Syria, the raids could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory.
Abu Anas, the Libyan al-Qaida leader, was the bigger prize, and officials said Saturday night that he was alive in U.S. custody. While the details about his capture were sketchy, a U.S. official said Saturday night that he appeared to have been taken peacefully and that he is no longer in Libya.
His capture was the latest grave blow to what remains of the original al-Qaida organization after a 12-year U.S. campaign to capture or kills its leadership, including the killing two years ago of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.
Despite his presence in Libya, Abu Anas was not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the U.S diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the al-Qaida organization to like-minded militants in Libya.
His brother, Nabih, told The Associated Press that just after dawn prayers, three vehicles full of armed men had approached Abu Anas home and surrounded him as he parked his car. The men smashed his window, seized his gun and sped away with him, the brother said.
A senior U.S. official said the Libyan government had been apprised of the operation and provided assistance, but it was unclear in what capacity. An assistant to the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government said the government had been unaware of any operation or of Abu Anas capture. Asked if U.S. forces had ever conducted raids inside Libya or collaborated with Libyan forces, Mehmoud Abu Bahia, assistant to the defense minister, replied, Absolutely not.
Disclosure of the raid is likely to inflame anxieties among many Libyans about their national sovereignty, putting a new strain on the transitional governments fragile authority. Many Libyans already accuse their interim prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who previously lived in Geneva as part of the exiled opposition to Moammar Gadhafi, of collaborating too closely with the West.
Abu Anas, 49, was born in Tripoli and joined bin Ladens organization as early as the early 1990s, when it was based in Sudan. He later moved to Britain, where he was granted political asylum as Libyan dissident. U.S. prosecutors in New York charged him in a 2000 indictment with helping to conduct visual and photographic surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and again in 1995. Prosecutors said in the indictment that Abu Anas had discussed with another senior al-Qaida figure the idea of attacking a U.S. target in retaliation for the U.S. peacekeeping operation in Somalia.
After the 1998 bombing, the British police raided his apartment and found an 18-chapter terrorist training manual. Written in Arabic and titled Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants, it included advice on car bombing, torture, sabotage and disguise.
Since the overthrow of Gadhafi, Tripoli has slid steadily into lawlessness, with no strong central government or police presence. It has become a haven for militants seeking to avoid detection elsewhere, and U.S. government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information, have acknowledged in recent months that Abu Anas and other wanted terrorists had been seen moving freely around the capital.
The operation to capture Abu Anas was several weeks in the making, a U.S. official said, and Obama was regularly briefed as the suspect was tracked in Tripoli. Obama had to approve the capture. He had often promised there would be no boots on the ground in Libya when the United States intervened there in March 2011, so the decision to send in special operations forces was a risky one.
U.S. officials say they would want to question Abu Anas for several weeks. But they did not dispute that, with an indictment pending against him in New York, that was most likely his ultimate destination. Obama has been loath to add to the prisoner count at the U.S. military facility at Guantánamo Bay, and there is precedent for delivering suspected terrorists to New York if they are under indictment there.
The operation will do nothing to quell the continuing questions about the events in Benghazi 13 months ago that led to the deaths of four Americans. But officials say the operation was a product of the decision, after Benghazi, to bolster the counterterrorism effort in Libya, especially as Tripoli became a haven for al-Qaida leadership.
The capture of Abu Anas also coincided with a fierce gunfight that killed 15 Libyan soldiers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood southeast of Tripoli, near the traditional home of Abu Anas clan.
A spokesman for the Libyan army general staff, Col. Ali Sheikhi, said five cars full of armed men in masks pulled up at the army checkpoint at 6:15 a.m. and opened fire at point-blank range. It was not clear if the assault at the checkpoint was related to the capture of Abu Anas.
The raid in Somalia was the most significant raid by U.S. troops in that lawless country since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaida mastermind, near the same town four years ago.
The town, Baraawe, a small port south of Mogadishu, is known as a gathering place for al-Shababs foreign fighters.
Witnesses described a firefight lasting more than an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, The attack was carried out by the American forces and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.
A spokesman for al-Shabab said one of its fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault. U.S. officials initially reported that they had seized the al-Shabab leader, but later backed off that account.
A U.S. official said no Americans had been killed or wounded and the Americans disengaged after inflicting some Shabab casualties.
We are not in a position to identify those casualties, the official said.
The FBI had sent dozens of agents to Nairobi after the shopping mall siege to help Kenyan authorities with the investigation. U.S. officials fear that al-Shabab could attempt a similar attack on American soil, perhaps employing Somali-American recruits.
A witness in Baraawe said the house was known as a place where senior foreign commanders stayed. He could not say whether they were there when the attack began, but he said 12 well-trained al-Shabab fighters scheduled for a mission abroad were staying there at the time of the assault.
It was not clear what role if any the target of the U.S. assault had played in the attack on the Nairobi mall.One U.S. official said it was still unclear whether any Americans had been involved in the Westgate siege, though many Kenyan officials said they now believed had been as few as four attackers far fewer than the 10 to 15 the government had previously reported.
A spokesman for the Kenyan military said Saturday that it had identified four of the attackers from surveillance footage as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and a man known only as Umayr.
The spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, said none of the militants had escaped the mall. Theyre all dead, he said.
The footage, broadcast on Kenyan television Friday night, showed four of the attackers moving about the mall with cool nonchalance.
At least one of the four men, Nabhan, was Kenyan, and believed to be a younger relative of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the al-Qaida operative killed four years ago near Baraawe, the site of Saturdays raid.
The elder Nabhan was a suspect in the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002 and the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said the tactics used in the Westgate attack were similar to those used by al-Shabab in a number of operations in Somalia this year. But he also said local help had been needed to pull off an attack on that scale, and that several of the men identified as taking part in the attack had been connected to groups Kenyan affiliate, known as al-Hijra.
We should certainly expect al-Hijra and al-Shabab to try again, Bryden said. And we should expect them to have the capacity to do so.