Two North African Counterterrorism Raids Meet with Mixed Results
The US military, in cooperation with the FBI and CIA, captured a high value al-Qaeda operative who is under indictment for the 1998 African embassy bombings. The raid took place in Tripoli, and apparently went off without a hitch.
Meanwhile, in a coastal town of Somalia, US Navy SEAL's attacked a seaside villa thought to house the leader of the terrorist group al-Shabab. The SEALs came under very heavy fire and eventually withdrew. The raid was thought to be in response to the attack by Shabab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
In Tripoli, American forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Liby, had a $5 million bounty on his head; his capture at dawn ended a 15-year manhunt.
In Somalia, the Navy SEAL team emerged before sunrise from the Indian Ocean and exchanged gunfire with militants at the home of a senior leader of the Shabab, the Somali militant group. The raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, after a massacre by the Shabab at a Nairobi shopping mall that killed more than 60 people two weeks ago.
The SEAL team was forced to withdraw before it could confirm that it had killed the Shabab leader, a senior American security official said. Officials declined to identify the target.
Officials said the timing of the two raids was coincidental. But occurring on the same day, they underscored the rise of northern Africa as a haven for international terrorists. Libya has collapsed into the control of a patchwork of militias since the ouster of the Qaddafi government in 2011. Somalia, the birthplace of the Shabab, has lacked an effective central government for more than two decades.
With President Obama locked in a standoff with Congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for a policy reversal in Syria, the raids could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory.
In a pre-emptive defense of a possible "Wag the Dog" scenario, Taylor Marsh dismisses such criticism:
This is absurd to even mention in the same report that fully explains the reasons for the duel raids, which included the extraction of a man the U.S. has been hunting for 15 years, after what reportedly was a hellacious firefight. Not to mention a separate commando effort in another north African country that may have taken out the man responsible for the Nairobi mall attack recently.
The Times likely felt compelled to include their political angle, because in the current atmosphere the countdown clock is already ticking until someone like Sen. Lindsey Graham takes an opportunistic shot at President Obama, or some Tea Party crank from the House says something stupid.
Absurd? Not hardly. Even if the raids were not planned to bolster Obama''s standing, is it plausible that Mr. Obama won't take political advantage of the success in capturing someone who attacked America? Or crow about the possible assassination of a high level al-Shabab terrorist?
And beyond questions about motives for capturing Mr. al-Liby, there is the stark fact that the raid took place in Tripoli -- the same city where the assassins who murdered our ambassador walk freely and without fear of capture. The Times appeared to gloss over this little detail:
The operation will do nothing to quell the continuing questions about the events in Benghazi 13 months ago that led to the deaths of four Americans. But officials say the operation was a product of the decision after Benghazi to bolster the counterterrorism effort in Libya, especially as Tripoli became a safe haven for Qaeda leadership.
The Somali operation was apparently in trouble almost from the start:
Witnesses 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 said, “The attack was carried out by the American forces, and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.”
A spokesman for the Shabab said that one of their 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.
A United States official said that no Americans had been killed or wounded and that the Americans “disengaged after inflicting some Shabab casualties.”
“We are not in a position to identify those casualties,” the official said.
It's hard to say exactly what might have gone wrong, but I find it surprising that the SEALs would become pinned down and need air support. That's not their MO -- in and out quickly and with lethal competence is their usual signature. Thankfully, there were no casualties.
If Obama is smart, he will downplay these raids and not try to make political hay out of capturing al-Liby. If he does, it will only raise questions about why we can capture a terrorist wanted for a 15 year old attack in broad daylight but are incapable of even identifying the murderers of Ambassador Stevens.