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Navy SEAL Team Stages Raid On Baraawe HQ of Al Shabaab

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U.S. Says Navy SEAL Team Stages Raid on Somali Militants


October 5, 2013

NAIROBI, Kenya — A Navy SEAL team targeted a senior leader of the Shabab militant group in a raid on his seaside villa in the Somali town of Baraawe on Saturday, American officials said, in response to a deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall for which the group had claimed responsibility.


The SEAL team stealthily approached the beachfront house by sea before exchanging gunfire with militants in a predawn firefight that was the most significant raid by American troops on Somali soil since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, near the same town four years ago.


The unidentified Shabab leader is believed to have been killed in the firefight, but the SEAL team was forced to withdraw before that could be confirmed, a senior American security official said. Such operations by American forces are rare because they carry a high risk, and indicate that the target was considered a high priority. Baraawe, a small port town south of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, is known as a gathering place for the Shabab’s foreign fighters.


“The Baraawe raid was planned a week and a half ago,” said another security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about a classified operation. “It was prompted by the Westgate attack,” he added, referring to the mall in Nairobi that was overrun by militants two weeks ago, leaving more than 60 dead.


Witnesses in the area described a firefight lasting over an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the raid, saying, “The attack was carried out by the American forces and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.”


A spokesman for the Shabab, which is based in Somalia, said that one of its fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault. American officials initially reported that they had seized the Shabab leader, but later backed off that account. The first American security official said there were no reports of American casualties in the operation.


The deadly assault on the Westgate shopping mall was a stark reminder of the power and reach of the Islamist group, which has had a series of military setbacks in recent years and was widely viewed as weakened.


The F.B.I. sent dozens of agents to Nairobi after the shopping mall siege to help Kenyan authorities with the investigation. United States officials fear that the Shabab could attempt a similar attack on American soil, perhaps employing several of the group’s Somali-American recruits.


Another United States official said it was still unclear whether any Americans were involved in the Westgate mall episode, though there were growing indications that fewer attackers took part in the siege than the 10 to 15 militants the government had previously announced.


A spokesman for the Kenyan military said Saturday that it had identified four of the attackers from surveillance footage. Local news media reported their names as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and a man known only as Umayr. “I can confirm that those are the names of the terrorists,” said Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, the spokesman.


The footage, broadcast on Kenyan television on Friday night, showed four of the attackers moving about the mall with cool nonchalance, no hint in their demeanor that they had stormed a shopping center and massacred dozens of people, much less that they feared an imminent counterassault from Kenyan security services.


One loitered in the grocery checkout aisle, talking on his cellphone. Another slouched in a storage room like a worker on break.


At least one of the four men, Mr. Nabhan, is Kenyan, and believed to be related to Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the Qaeda mastermind killed four years ago near Baraawe.


The elder Mr. Nabhan was a suspect in the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002 and the attacks on the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.


He was one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa when American commandos killed him in September 2009 in an audacious daytime attack. Four military helicopters shot at two trucks rumbling through the desert, killing six foreign fighters, including Mr. Nabhan, and three Somali members of the Shabab.


Mr. Nabhan was of Yemeni descent but was born in Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast. Kenyan news media reported that the younger Mr. Nabhan also came from Mombasa, and was among the Kenyans who traveled to Somalia to fight with the Shabab.


Matt Bryden, the former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said the tactics used in the Westgate attack were similar to those used by the Shabab in a number of operations in Somalia this year. But he also said that local help was needed to pull off an attack on that scale, and that several of the men identified as taking part in the attack were connected to group’s Kenyan affiliate, known as Al Hijra.


“We should certainly expect Al Hijra and Al Shabab to try again,” Mr. Bryden said. “And we should expect them to have the capacity to do so.”


The raid on Saturday appeared to have been intended to blunt those capabilities. A witness in Baraawe said the house was known as a place where senior foreign commanders stayed, though he could not say whether they were there at the time of the attack.


The witness said 12 well-trained Shabab fighters scheduled for a mission abroad were staying there at the time of the assault.


There was some confusion as to exactly what happened before sunrise on Saturday. Witnesses described the SEAL team using silencers in the initial attack, but a loud firefight afterward. Before confirmation that an American SEAL team was behind the attack, a Shabab spokesman said British and Turkish forces were involved, which both countries immediately denied.


“The attackers were not able to enter the house,” the spokesman, Sheik Abdiaziz Abu Musab, said in a telephone interview. “Our fighters were fighting very hard.”


Nicholas Kulish reported from Nairobi, and Eric Schmitt from San Francisco. Reporting was contributed by Josh Kron from Mombasa, Kenya; Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul; Michael S. Schmidt from Washington; and Mohammed Ibrahim from Mogadishu, Somalia.


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Target in U.S. Raid on Somalia Is Called Top Shabab Planner of Attacks Abroad


Published: October 6, 2013


NAIROBI, Kenya — The target of the American commando raid in the Horn of Africa, a Kenyan of Somali origin known as Ikrimah, is one of the Shabab militant group’s top planners for attacks beyond its base in Somalia, an American official said Sunday.


Though Mr. Ikrimah had not been tied directly to the Shabab’s deadly assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi last month, fears of a similar attack against Western targets broke a deadlock among officials in Washington over whether to conduct the raid.


Special-operations commanders were in favor, pushing for a more aggressive response to the rising threat from the group in Somalia, while administration officials were nervous about incurring American military casualties. As it turned out, there were none, according to a United States official — but Mr. Ikrimah was not captured, and there is as yet no evidence that he was killed in the firefight that broke out on the Somali coast in the early hours of Saturday morning.


Mr. Ikrimah is an associate of two Al Qaeda operatives who were involved in the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and an airline in Mombasa. SEAL Team 6, the Navy commando unit that killed the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was dispatched to try to apprehend him.


The Navy SEALs approached the Somali coast under cover of darkness for what was supposed to be a stealthy snatch-and-grab operation from a seaside villa in the port town of Baraawe.


But instead of slipping away with the senior militant they had come to capture, the SEALs found themselves under sustained fire. The American troops retreated unharmed after inflicting casualties on the Shabab defenders, but the militant group has claimed victory in the skirmish on Saturday.


“Al Shabab can lick their wounds and take some satisfaction that, after all, they repulsed the world’s most powerful military force,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “On the other hand, for Al Shabab it sends a pretty disquieting message that the U.S. is willing to intervene and bring the war right to their doorstep.”


Many questions about the raid remained unanswered on Sunday. The villa might have been a residence belonging to Ahmed Abdi Godane, the Shabab’s leader, according to local residents in Baraawe who were reached by phone on Sunday. The spokesman for the Shabab, Sheik Abdiaziz Abu Musab, denied that the villa housed anything other than “normal fighters,” saying it was “like any other house — it is not that special.”


Analysts said it was highly unlikely that the raid had resulted in the death of either Mr. Godane or Mr. Ikrimah. If it had, “you would think the U.S. would make a major fuss about it,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu. “The fact that they don’t know they’ve killed someone or not tells us a lot about the fact that the raid was not too successful.”


Saturday’s operation came after months of simmering tensions inside the American government about whether direct-assault missions in Somalia were worth the potential risks to American troops.


“The evolution of threats has refocused counterterrorism resources and attention on Africa and on terrorist groups operating in that region,” said Valentina Soria, a security analyst at IHS Jane’s in London.


Former officials and Somalia experts said that the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command has been collecting more precise intelligence for some time about the whereabouts of senior Shabab leaders, and have pushed for permission to carry out capture-or-kill missions inside the country.


State Department officials wondered whether such raids could accomplish enough to justify the significant risks the American troops would run. Animating the discussions have been questions about whether Al Shabab posed a danger to Americans compared with groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has tried to attack the United States on several occasions. The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi last month, which left more than 60 people dead, “provides the impetus politically to respond to the changing threat,” said Bill Braniff, executive director of Start, a terrorism research center based at the University of Maryland.


The mall attack yielded intelligence leads, as militants actively discussed the days-long siege in Kenya among themselves; tracing those discussions made it easier to determine the militants’ whereabouts. Planning for the commando raid began more than a week ago, an official said.


“The opportunity question is about intelligence — when do you have enough information to act?” said Mr. Braniff. “When you do have information, that tends to force your hand.”


The raid in Baraawe was the most significant operation by American troops in Somalia since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, in a raid near the town four years ago. Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a militant commander who acted as the group’s liaison with Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, was apprehended in April 2011 by the United States military in the Gulf of Aden. Last year, a team of Navy SEALs rescued two hostages held by Somali pirates, also without suffering any casualties.


The Shabab spokesman, Mr. Musab, claimed the group had advance word that the raid on Saturday was coming, though its nature was unclear. “There was some information that there was going to be a strike that took place,” he said, adding that the group’s fighters fired the first shots in the firefight. He said the commandos came ashore using small speedboats launched from a larger naval vessel out at sea.


An American official briefed on the operation said the SEALs withdrew from the firefight to avoid civilian casualties. A local witness said he saw four fresh graves for militants killed by the SEALs. But the losses were unlikely to put a dent in the activities, at home or abroad, of the Shabab, a group with thousands of committed fighters.


Even so, analysts said the message sent by the raid might have been more important than the outcome.


“The Shabab territories are dwindling, so that means the Shabab leaders will be more vulnerable,” said Stig Hansen, a Norwegian academic who is writing a book on the resurgence of Islamic militancy in Africa. “They wanted to show that it costs the Shabab to do international operations.”


Nicholas Kulish reported from Nairobi, Kenya; Eric Schmitt from San Francisco, and Mark Mazzetti from Madrid. Josh Kron contributed reporting from Mombasa, Kenya.

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