The Obama administration’s decision to mount two risky attempts to capture Al Qaeda operatives in Africa reflects a reduced role for lethal CIA drone strikes and a growing prominence for the Pentagon in counter-terrorism operations, U.S. officials said Sunday.
In one raid, Navy SEALs stormed the coastal Somalia home of a leader of the Shabab, the Somali-based group that claimed responsibility for last month’s massacre in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. In that operation, the administration opted to put U.S. commandos at risk against a fixed target that could have been destroyed with bombs or missiles from the air.
U.S. intelligence had indications that a dozen or more family members and other noncombatants were present at the compound, raising the risk of civilian casualties in any missile strike, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the classified operation.
The suspect sought in the raid was not captured, and the SEALs ultimately withdrew, officials said. A senior administration official identified the target as a Kenyan of Somali origin named Ikrina who commands foreign fighters for the Shabab and has links to two deceased Al Qaeda operatives. It was unclear whether Ikrina is his full name.
The official said the assumption is that Ikrina survived.
In Libya, an operation carried out jointly by the CIA, the FBI and U.S. special operations forces captured a long-time suspected Al Qaeda leader who goes by the alias Abu Anas al Liby. He has been indicted on charges that he was involved in planning Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
That suggested a common thread in the two raids. The two deceased Al Qaeda operatives linked to the suspect in the Somali attack, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, played roles in the 1998 Nairobi bombing as well as in attacks in 2002 on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, according to the senior administration official.
The Libyan operation relied on an element of surprise: The U.S. had determined that Al Liby used minimal personal security and was moving openly in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
He was detained without incident, officials said.
The results of the two raids -- the successful capture of Al Liby and the apparent failure to capture the Shabab leader -- illustrate the risks and potential rewards of aiming for cap- tures rather than drone strikes.
A senior administration official said the Obama administration has not formally shifted away from CIA drone strikes in favor of using the military to capture wanted militants. Another official noted, however, that as criticism over secret drone strikes has grown, President Obama has increasingly expressed a preference for capturing militants, rather than killing them.
In a statement, the White House publicly reiterated that preference.
“Exceptional work was done by our military and intelligence agencies to successfully capture Abu Anas al [Liby] yesterday in Libya,” said the statement by Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “The president has made clear our preference for capturing terrorist targets when possible, and that’s exactly what we’ve done in order to elicit as much valuable intelligence as we can and bring a dangerous terrorist to justice.”
The decision to send the U.S. military to lead the Libyan operation marked a significant change in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CIA paramilitary teams grabbed scores of suspected Al Qaeda operatives and supporters off the streets of cities in Pakistan, the Middle East and even Italy. But the agency curtailed those operations after its harsh interrogation and secret detention program came to light, and it closed its so-called black site prisons overseas in 2006.
After the curtailment of renditions, U.S. forces increasingly appeared to focus on killing militants rather than capturing them.
A first indication of the shift back toward captures came in 2011 when Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali militant, was captured at sea in 2011 and secretly interrogated aboard a U.S. warship for two months before he was charged in federal court in New York. He later pleaded guilty to nine terrorism charges and faces life in prison. U.S. officials said he was a leader of the Shabab and had arranged a weapons deal with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda affiliate.
But the raid in Tripoli was a riskier operation.
For the U.S. military to conduct a raid in the capital of a country in which it is not conducting military operations “is extremely rare,” one senior congressional aide said.
“I think this goes along with this policy that they are trying to move counter-terrorism operations from CIA to Defense, and trying to operate less with drones,” said the aide, who was not authorized to be quoted by name in discussing the sensitive operations.
Libya’s interim government on Sunday called the Liby operation a “kidnapping,” and demanded an explanation from Washington. The response highlighted one of the risks of using U.S. troops instead of drones: The operations can bring the same sort of condemnation from foreign governments, but ground attacks are harder for the U.S. to refuse to acknowledge.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a House Intelligence Committee member, said in an interview that the operations represented “a substantial shift” in U.S. counter-terrorism policy.
“There are tremendous risks of conducting an operation in the middle of a capital, and in the past we haven’t been willing to undertake those operations,” he said. “This was a pretty gutsy thing to do. They both were.” U.S. officials not only wanted Al Liby because of suspected links to the 1998 bombing, but also feared he was recruiting terrorists, Schiff said.
In Somalia, the operation was the most significant since 2009, when helicopter-borne U.S. special operations forces killed Nabhan, a senior Al Qaeda militant. Some troops landed and retrieved DNA for confirmation in that attack, suggesting a capture attempt was possible, but was not pursued.
In May, the administration announced that it had narrowed its criteria for targeting Al Qaeda operatives through drone strikes, requiring that there be a “near certainty” that civilians not be harmed. Officials also said they would gradually shift the covert CIA drone program to military supervision, allowing them to acknowledge strikes.
Since then, drone strikes have continued at a reduced pace in Pakistan and Yemen, where U.S. military raids would badly inflame public opinion, and have largely stopped elsewhere.
In May, when he described the new policy that limited drone attacks, Obama warned that military raids were not always a better option than drone strikes.
It’s not possible “for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University.
“There are places where it would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians -- where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight with surrounding tribal communities, for example.”
Just that scenario appears to have cut short the raid in Somalia, U.S. officials said. The fact that the Shabab leader had been tracked to a home near the coast, accessible to SEALs coming from the sea, made the attack possible. But when SEALs left their boats and approached the target house, they came under heavy fire and decided to withdraw to avoid killing civilians, an administration official said.