WASHINGTON — In two raids nearly 3,000 miles apart, U.S. military forces went after two high-value targets over the weekend. And while officials have yet to say whether the operations were coordinated or directly related, they show Washington’s reach, capability and willingness to pursue alleged terrorists.
One operation took place Saturday in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, when U.S. forces captured Abu Anas al Libi, an al Qaeda leader wanted for his role in the deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
In the second raid, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs in southern Somalia targeted a leader of Al-Shabaab, which was behind last month’s mall attack in Kenya. The SEALs came under fire and had to withdraw before they could confirm whether they killed their target, a senior U.S. official said.
“One could have gone without the other,” said retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, CNN’s military analyst. “But the fact that they did them both, I think, is a real signal that the United States — no matter how long it takes — will go after these targets.”
The operations come at a time when polls show the American public is skittish about more involvement in conflicts overseas. That means, Francona said, that others who might be in the U.S. government’s cross hairs could have more reason to worry.
Al Libi tied to U.S. embassy bombings
Al Libi, 49, has been high on the radar for years. He was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, with a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction.
He is alleged to have played a key role in the August 7, 1998, bombings of American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed and another 5,000 wounded in the Kenya attack; 11 died in the Tanzania incident.
He has been indicted on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, murder, destruction of American buildings and government property, and destruction of national defense utilities of the United States.
As early as December 2010, Libyan authorities told a United Nations committee that al Libi was living there, even giving a Tripoli address for him.
U.S. officials wanted al Libi, to face trial in an American court. But counterterrorism analysts told CNN in 2012 that al Libi may not have been apprehended because of the delicate security situation in much of Libya, where ex-jihadists — especially those who once belonged to the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group — held considerable sway since the campaign against and ultimate ouster of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The Saturday operation to capture him was conducted with the knowledge of the Libyan government, said one U.S. official. The Pentagon said late Saturday night that the U.S. military was holding al Libi in a “secure location” outside Libya.
“It’s a huge deal to get him,” said CNN’s Nic Robertson, who has long been covering al Qaeda. “He’s a big player in al Qaeda (and) he is in one of the key target areas, the north of Africa.”
Beyond any psychological impact on the terrorist group, al Libi’s capture could potentially yield a wealth of information about the al Qaeda’s plans and capabilities. The terrorist network has shown particular strength of late in Africa, something he might be able to shed light on.
“Clearly, he may have useful information about the strength of al Qaeda and the Islamists in Libya,” Robertson said. “He is somebody who is senior within al Qaeda. He was well respected, a good operative.”
The United States made significant efforts since those nearly simultaneous 1998 bombings to beef up its security at U.S. diplomatic posts. But as the September 11, 2012, attack on a U.S consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya — which left four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, dead — showed that, despite the added precautions, they are still very much under threat.
The twin military operations targeting alleged terrorists should raise such concerns even more, not just at U.S. embassies but at other places that Americans and other Westerns congregate.
Al-Shabaab blamed for Kenya mall attack
Al-Shabaab long has been a target of Washington as well: It was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government in March 2008. The group is seeking to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, though it has targeted people outside that African country as well.
While the Somali group has been linked to a number of attacks, its most recent one on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall — which left at least 67 people dead — thrust it into the spotlight once again. Washington vowed to support Kenya’s government after the bloody, multi-day raid, which raised concerns that something like it could happen in the United States.
Why exactly U.S. forces went after the group recently in southern Somalia wasn’t immediately known.
The Al-Shabaab raid took place in Somalia, where that terrorist group is based, on Friday, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
The team of U.S. Navy SEALs had to withdraw before it could confirm whether it killed the target because they came under fire, a senior U.S. official said. The SEALs made the “prudent decision” to withdraw rather than engage in further combat, according to the official, after inflicting some Al-Shabaab casualties.
No U.S. personnel were injured or killed in the raid, said another U.S. official.
South-central Somalia is where most of the group’s foreign fighters and leaders live and is heavily guarded. The group there has been increasingly squeezed as Kenyan forces fight the group from the south and African Union forces come down from Mogadishu.
In the meantime, it’s become even closer to al Qaeda — with the two groups effectively merging last year, according to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen.
“This is a group that has adopted al Qaeda’s ideology wholesale,” Bergen said of Al-Shabaab, noting that more and more it’s reach extends beyond Somalia. “The reason they attacked the mall was not only because it was Kenyan, but also because it attracted a fair number of Western businessmen and others living in Nairobi.”
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