Navy SEALS abandoned their mission to capture an Islamist terrorist suspected of planning the mall attack in Kenya after encountering strong resistance at the man's beach-side stronghold in Somalia, U.S. officials told Reuters and NBC.
The SEALS mission took place the same day that Army special forces captured a wanted terrorist in Libya in a raid in Tripoli. Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Anas al-Libi, is being held in a U.S. warship.
The target of the SEALS was Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar, say Kenyan and Western security agencies. Reuters said Abdikadar is a liaison between commanders of the al-Shabaab Islamist group in Somalia with terrorist cells in linked to al-Qaeda in Kenya, Yemen and the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, said J. Peter Pham, director of the the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.
Al-Shabab was involved in last month's attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67 people, and Abdikadar was likely a major facilitator of that attack, Pham said.
Abdikadar has so many connections in the militant world that "he would have valuable information about extremist groups, and more current information than al-Libi," Pham said. "Al-Libi was higher ranked but much of his knowledge was more historical."
Abdikadar is an ethnic Somali Kenyan with connections to al Qaeda in East Africa, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda central in the Afghan-Pakistan area, Pham said. He was a protégé of two al-Qaeda leaders in East Africa who were both killed in recent years by U.S. special forces, Pham said. He is also known as Ikrima, a name he took from an early opponent of the Muslim prophet Mohammed who later became one of his most effective commanders and died leading the 636 battle that ended Byzantine rule in Syria.
Ikrima also has his own connections both to al-Hijra, al-Shabab's Kenyan arm, and to the Muslim Youth Center, an important support element within Kenya for al-Shabab that supplies it with foreign recruits, Pham said.
With his network of safe houses in Nairobi and in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, and his access to foreign fighters, Ikrima is more likely to have played a facilitating role in the Westgate Mall attack than al Shabab commander Ahmed Abdi Godane, who ordered the attack, Pham said.
The SEALS executed the raid to nab Abdikadar in Barawe, a militant stronghold on Somalia's southern coast. But the team pulled out after a gun battle made the operation too risky. Reuters reported.
The attackers fought their way into a two-story house near the beach where foreign fighters resided, but fled after local militants rushed to the scene to capture a foreign soldier, the Associated Press reported, citing an al-Shabab fighter who gave his name as Abu Mohamed. That effort was unsuccessful, Mohamed said.
The aborted attack is evidence of a new U.S. strategy to try to minimize civilian casualties when conducting operations to kill or capture militant leaders, Pham said.
"The object of the raid was to take him alive," Pham said. "When that was not an option they didn't call in an air strike, which would have leveled the compound."
They could have done that but it would have killed a number of non-combatants, which does affect our counterterrorism efforts, and gives extremists a valuable propaganda tool, Pham said. "That's evidence of a new strategy" in keeping with a policy described by President Obama in May, Pham said.
Ikrima spent several years in Norway and is suspected of having plotted to attack Kenya's parliament, assassinate top Kenyan politicians and hit U.N. offices in Nairobi, according to a Kenyan intelligence report leaked to media and also obtained by Reuters.
"He is a planner who is relentless in coming up with operations in Kenya," said Matt Bryden, a former coordinator of the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group. "He is one of the thinkers, planners, operational practitioners."
Experts say he was mentored by al-Qaeda operatives Fazul Mohammed and Saleh Nabhan, both now dead, who played roles in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi and a 2002 attack on an Israeli hotel and passenger jet in the coastal city of Mombasa.
Mohammed was killed in 2011 by Somali government forces in 2011; Nabhan died in Barawe in 2009 in a U.S. special forces helicopter strike.