TRIPOLI/MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Two U.S. raids in Africa show the United States is pressuring al Qaeda, officials said on Sunday, though a failure in Somalia and an angry response in Libya also highlighted Washington’s problems.
In Tripoli, U.S. forces snatched a Libyan wanted over the bombings of the American embassy in Nairobi 15 years ago and whisked him out of the country, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry to declare that al Qaeda leaders “can run but they can’t hide”.
But the capture of Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, also provoked a complaint about the “kidnap” from the Western-backed Libyan prime minister; he faces a backlash from armed Islamists who have carved out a share of power since the West helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi two years ago.
In Somalia, Navy SEALS stormed ashore into the al Shabaab stronghold of Barawe but, a U.S. official said, they failed to capture or kill the target among the Somali allies of al Qaeda.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the target was a Kenyan of Somali origin known by the name Ikrima, described as a foreign fighter commander for al Shabaab in Somalia.
One of the officials said it was not known if Ikrima was connected to last month’s attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi by al Shabaab gunmen in which at least 67 people were killed.
Kerry, on a visit to Indonesia, said President Barack Obama’s administration was “pleased with the results” of the combined assaults early on Saturday. “We hope this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror,” he said.
Two years after Navy SEALs finally tracked down and killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a decade after al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the twin operation demonstrated the reach of U.S. military forces in Africa, where Islamist militancy has been in the ascendant.
The forays also threw a spotlight on Somalia’s status as a fragmented haven for al Qaeda allies more than 20 years after Washington intervened in vain in its civil war and Libya’s descent into an anarchic battleground between rival bands on the Mediterranean that stretches deep south into the Sahara.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said they showed Washington would “spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable”.
Yet disrupting its most aggressive enemy, in an oil-rich state that is awash with arms and sits on Europe’s doorstep, may have been more the priority in the Libya raid than putting on trial a little known suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
Clearly aware of the risks to his government of complicity in the snatching of Liby as he returned to his suburban home from dawn prayers, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said: “The Libyan government is following the news of the kidnapping of a Libyan citizen who is wanted by U.S. authorities.
“The Libyan government has contacted U.S. authorities to ask them to provide an explanation.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, without commenting on any specific communications, said, “we consult regularly with the Libyan government on a range of security and counterterrorism issues.”
Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the Libyan government had been notified of the operation, but did not specify when Libya was informed.
Liby’s son, Abdullah al Ragye, 19, told reporters at the family home that men had pulled up in four cars, knocked him out with some kind of drug, dragged him from his vehicle and driven off with him in a Mercedes.
“They had a Libyan look and Libyan accents,” he said. It was not clear, however, whether the men were connected to the Libyan state, which may either have sought to keep its distance or been sidelined by Washington for fear of leaks.
Abdul Bassit Haroun, a former Islamist militia commander who works with the Libyan government on security, said the U.S. raid would show Libya was no refuge for “international terrorists”.
“But it is also very bad that no state institutions had the slightest information about this process, nor do they have a force which was able to capture him,” he told Reuters.
“This means the Libyan state simply does not exist.”
He warned that Islamist militants, like those blamed for the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a year ago, would hit back violently. “This won’t just pass,” Haroun said.
“There will be a strong reaction in order to take revenge because this is one of the most important al Qaeda figures.”
Somalia’s Western-backed government said it did cooperate with Washington, though its control of much of the country, including the port of Barawe, 180 km (110 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, is limited by powerful armed groups.
“We have collaboration with the world and with neighboring countries in the battle against al Shabaab,” Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said when asked of Somalia’s role in the raid.
U.S. forces have used airborne drones to kill Somalis in the past and last year SEALs freed two kidnapped aid workers there.
Somali police said seven people were killed in Barawe. U.S. officials said their forces took no casualties but had broken off the fighting to avoid harming civilians. They failed to capture or kill their target during fighting around dawn at a seaside villa that al Shabaab said was one of its bases.
A Somali intelligence official said a Chechen commander, who might have been the Americans’ target, was wounded.
In Somalia, al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters no senior figure was present when the Americans came ashore. “Ordinary fighters lived in the house and they bravely counter attacked and chased off the attackers,” he said.
Al Shabaab said that in attacking the Nairobi mall it was hitting back at Kenyan intervention in Somalia, which has forced it from much of its territory. It also targeted Westerners out shopping.
From Nigeria in the west, through Mali, Algeria and Libya to Somalia and Kenya in the east, Africa has seen major attacks on its own people and on Western economic interests, including an Algerian desert gas plant in January and the Nairobi mall as well as the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya a year ago.
The trend reflects a number of factors, including Western efforts to force al Qaeda from its former base in Afghanistan, the overthrow of anti-Islamist authoritarian rulers in the Arab Spring of 2011 and growing resentment among Africa’s poor with governments they view as corrupt pawns of Western powers.
Western intelligence experts say there is evidence of growing links among Islamist militants across North Africa, who share al Qaeda’s goal of a strict Islamic state and the expulsion of Western interests from Muslim lands.
Liby, who has been reported as having fled Gaddafi’s police state to join bin Laden in Sudan in the 1990s before securing political asylum in Britain, may have been part of that bid to consolidate an operational base, analysts say.
Wanted by the FBI, which gives his age as 49 and had offered a $5 million reward for help in capturing him, Liby was indicted in 2000 along with 20 other al Qaeda suspects including bin Laden and current global leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Charges relating to him personally accused him of discussing the bombing of the Nairobi embassy in retaliation for the U.S. intervention in the Somali civil war in 1992-1993 and of helping reconnoiter and plan the attack in the years before 1998.
Obama, wrestling with the legal and political difficulties posed by prisoners at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, has said he does not want to send more suspects there. But a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said it was still not decided where Liby would be tried.
His indictment was filed in New York, making that a possible venue for a civilian, rather than military, trial. It was unclear where Liby was on Sunday. U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, as well as bases in Italy and Germany, would provide ample facilities within a short flight time.
Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Bali, Mark Hosenball, Phil Stewart and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, James Macharia in Nairobi, Patrick Markey in Tunis and Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Christopher Wilson and Mohammad Zargham