WASHINGTON (CNN) – A pre-dawn raid by elite U.S. forces in southern Somalia, in the heart of territory controlled by the al Qaeda subsidiary Al-Shabaab, targeted an Al-Shabaab commander connected to one of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, a senior Obama administration official said Sunday.
The suspected foreign fighter commander is named Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin about whom little is known. The official said Ikrima is associated with two now-deceased al Qaeda operatives who played roles in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, also in Kenya.
A recent Kenyan intelligence report alleged that Ikrima was behind several foiled terror conspiracies against targets in Kenya between 2011 and 2013. The most recent was a plot to attack Mandera Airport in Kenya’s North Eastern province in April.
Kenyan officials said last year that Ikrima had a significant role in recruiting and training Kenyans in Al-Shabaab. He is thought to have been a close associate of Saleh Ali Nabhan, a fellow Kenyan and senior al Qaeda operative in east Africa, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2009 in Somalia.
He is thought to have been a close associate of the Saleh Ali Nabhan, a fellow Kenyan and senior al Qaeda operative in east Africa, who was believed to have been connected to the embassy attacks. (Ali Nabhan was killed by U.S. forces in 2009 in Somalia.)
Ikrima also appears to be close to Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, who also goes by Ahmed Abdi Godane.
How the raid happened
U.S. Navy SEAL members traveled by sea to reach the coastal villa frequented by top Al-Shabaab commanders, storming the house early Saturday. Until Sunday, no U.S. official disclosed the target of the raid.
The SEALs’ mission didn’t go as planned, however. The U.S. commandos encountered heavy fire and had to withdraw, not knowing whether their target was dead or alive.
Al-Shabaab is the U.S.-designated terrorist group that claimed responsibility for last month’s siege on a Kenyan shopping mall that killed 67 people.
Residents of the port city of Barawe said the home belonged to Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, also known as Ahmed Abdi Godane. An Al-Shabaab spokesman had said Godane was the target of the attack.
The group said one of its fighters was killed in the attack. No SEAL members were killed or hurt, a U.S. official said.
It was one of two raids carried out by elite U.S. forces in Africa on Saturday against targets connected to the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi. The other was an operation in Tripoli, Libya, by the U.S. Army Delta Force against Abu Anas al Libi, indicted in the United States for helping to plan the Nairobi embassy attack.
Delta Force members captured al Libi, who will eventually be taken to New York to face federal charges.
In the 2002 attacks, three suicide bombers detonated a car bomb outside the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing the bombers as well as 12 Kenyans and three Israelis. The same morning, a missile attack unsuccessfully targeted an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa’s airport.
Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for both Mombasa attacks.
Residents of the port city of Barawe said about a dozen “foreign forces” went from a nearby warship to a smaller, faster boat before jumping onto the Somali mainland. Before long, the sounds of heavy gunfire and several large explosions echoed across the city, locals said.
After coming under fire, the U.S. forces — members of the Navy special forces unit known as SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 — made a “prudent decision” to pull back, a senior U.S. official said.
Barawe “is a main center, if not the center” for Al-Shabaab, said Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
“It’s a big source of revenue for them. It allows for trade,” said Bryden, now the director of a Kenya-based think tank, Sahan Research. They “fully control the town” and hold large exercises on the beach, including target practice and even sack races.
Once a tourist destination, the city is now an important port for charcoal, a common fuel in Somalia, Bryden said. That makes it a revenue source for the jihadists, with the charcoal trade bringing in as much as $25 million a year to Al-Shabaab, the United Nations estimated in July.
Al-Shabaab’s growing menace
Al-Shabaab, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, has a relationship with al Qaeda that goes back several years. Last year, the two groups effectively merged, said CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.
Al-Shabaab hopes to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state but has launched attacks in other countries as well.
In 2010, Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings carried out in Kampala, Uganda, amid crowds of soccer fans watching televised screenings of the World Cup final. The bombings left 74 people dead.
The group said at the time the attacks were retaliation for Ugandan participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM. One AMISOM goal is to support Somali government forces in cracking down on Al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab has also mounted many smaller attacks against targets in Kenya, hurling hand grenades into nightclubs, restaurants and schools. The group has also kidnapped tourists and aid workers.
Its attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya on September 21 killed at least 67 people.
Al-Shabaab said the attack was retaliation for Kenya’s involvement in the African Union effort against the group.
In recent months, Al-Shabaab’s haven in south-central Somalia has been been increasingly squeezed as Kenyan forces fight the group from the south and African Union forces come down from Mogadishu, the Somali capital.