/ 7 October 2013

US raids on Somalia, Libya yields more questions than answers

Abdullah al Ragye
Abdullah al Ragye (left), son of Abu Anas al-Liby. (Reuters)

Two US 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, US 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 West-backed Libyan prime minister; he faces a backlash from militant Islamists who have carved out a share of power since the West helped Libya's rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi two years ago.

In Somalia, Navy SEALS stormed ashore into the al-Shabab stronghold of Barawe but, a US official said, they failed to capture or kill the target.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the target was a Kenyan of Somali origin known as Ikrima, described as a foreign fighter commander for al-Shabab in Somalia.

Ikrima, whose real name is Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar, was associated with now-deceased al-Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who played roles in the 1998 Embassy bombing in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombassa, US officials said.

Not in response to Westgate attack
One of the officials said the US operation in Somalia was not in direct response to last month's al-Shabab attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, in which at least 67 people were killed. It was unknown whether Ikrima was connected to that attack, the official said.

Kerry, on a visit to Indonesia, said US 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 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 US 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.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said they showed Washington would "spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable".

Libya risks
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 US authorities.

"The Libyan government has contacted US authorities to ask them to provide an explanation."

State department spokesperson 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 US 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 is a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians.

His whereabouts were unclear on Sunday, although in similar cases in the past, the United States has held detainees aboard ship. US Navy vessels in the Mediterranean, as well as bases in Italy and Germany, would provide ample facilities within a short flight time.

'A Libyan look'
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 US 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 said.

"This means the Libyan state simply does not exist."

He warned that Islamist militants, like those blamed for the deadly attack on the US 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."

Somali chaos
Somalia's West-backed government said it did co-operate with Washington, though its control of much of the country, including the port of Barawe, 180km south of the capital, Mogadishu, is limited by powerful armed groups.

"We have collaboration with the world and with neighbouring countries in the battle against al-Shabab," Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said when asked of Somalia's role in the raid.

US 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. US 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 the assault around dawn at a seaside villa that al-Shabab 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-Shabab spokesperson Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab said 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-Shabab 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.

Islamist states
From Nigeria in the west, through Mali, Algeria and Libya to Somalia and Kenya in the east, Africa has seen major attacks on its 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 US 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 Liby personally accused him of discussing the bombing of the Nairobi embassy in retaliation for the US intervention in the Somali civil war in 1992/93 and of helping reconnoitre and plan the attack in the years before 1998.

Obama, wrestling with the legal and political difficulties posed by prisoners at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, has said he does not want to send more suspects there. But a spokesperson 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 a military, trial. – Reuters