The U.S. military carried out two rare, high-risk operations against high-level terrorism suspects over the weekend and now, for the first time, officials are acknowledging one was not a complete success.
Just before dawn on Saturday morning, members of the Navy's highly-trained SEAL Team Six unsuccessfully attempted to capture a member of the militant group responsible for the attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed dozens two weeks ago. Initially, U.S. officials said the commandos had seized their target, but the story quickly changed, and eventually it was revealed the SEALs did not capture their man. For a time, officials thought that perhaps the target may have been killed: the SEALs weren't able to confirm his death before being forced to retreat, though.
On Monday morning, The New York Times reported that the operation was "was supposed to be a stealthy snatch-and-grab," that didn't go as planned:
But instead of slipping away with the senior militant they had come to capture, the SEALs found themselves under sustained fire. The American troops retreated unharmed after inflicting casualties on the Shabab defenders, but the militant group has claimed victory in the skirmish on Saturday.
The Times report was the first confirmation that the attack on the al-Shabab compound had truly failed. CNN quoted a senior administration official saying the SEALs retreated to avoid civilian casualties. The network's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, also reported this morning, that the sailors received heavier resistance than they expected and that once they realized they would not be able to capture the target alive, the SEALs decided to withdraw. In both raids, it appears that no U.S. personnel were killed.
That decision suggests that the most important objective in both instances was to take the targets alive — hence the use of on-the-ground assault teams, instead of lethal, but less risky, drone attacks. This was an information gathering mission, not a hit squad.
Some outlets initially named the leader of al-Shabab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Ahmed Godane, as the target in Sunday's raid. But the real target was a man known as Ikrimah, U.S. officials revealed Monday morning The Associated Press says he is a "coordinator" for the militant group. The house raided by the SEAL Team Six commandos is owned by Godane, though, which likely led to the confusion.
CNN has more info about Ikrimah:
A Kenyan of Somali origin, Ikrima is associated with now-deceased al Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who played roles in the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi and the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, all in Kenya, the official said. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for all three.
The other operation carried out on Saturday went much more smoothly, with members of the U.S. Army's Delta Force capturing al-Qaeda leader, Abu Anas al-Libi, from his home in Tripoli, Libya. He, too, is a suspect in the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi. al-Libi is now being held for questioning on the U.S.S. San Antonio somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Pentagon was quick to fight back against any narrative that suggested the attack was a failure, framing the raid as a warning to al-Shabab for the future:
Seeing some suggestions that one of our military ops wasn't successful. We knocked on al-Shabaab's front door. They shouldn't sleep easy.— George Little (@PentagonPresSec) October 7, 2013
In other words: there are more raids coming.
[Pictured: Bullet-holes pepper the glass door of a shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.]