Official US reluctance to identify the target of the failed Somali raid by Seal Team Six special forces commandos may stem from a wish not to further bolster the growing reputation of al-Shabaab's shadowy leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubayr.
The Islamist militia's hardline emir emerged as Africa's most wanted man after the 21 September Westgate mall attack in Nairobi when at least 67 people died, for which he claimed responsibility. His capture would have been portrayed as a triumph. By extension, his eluding of American-style justice will be seen as a serious setback. Pentagon officials will say only that the target of the dawn raid on the seaside town of Barawe, south of Mogadishu, was a "high-value" al-Shabaab terrorist linked to Westgate. Local sources said the Seals attacked a building housing foreign fighters, and that an unidentified Chechen fighter may have been their quarry.
But this is unlikely to be the whole story, given the elaborate pre-raid preparations begun soon after Westgate. The US navy Seals are the same crack unit that killed the al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden, two years ago in Pakistan. This time, too, Barack Obama was reportedly kept closely informed of the progress of the Somali plan, and of the almost simultaneous operation in Libya.
Given the political sensitivity, at home and in the Muslim world, that surrounds such American on-the-ground incursions, Obama himself will have personally given the go-ahead for both raids. His orders were reportedly to capture, if possible, rather than kill.
It was a high-risk gamble that paid off in Tripoli, where the wanted al-Qaida leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, was successfully seized, but not in Somalia. And it was likely a gamble that could only be justified if the prestigious prize was the capture of Godane himself, the al-Shabaab eminence grise.
An unnamed Somali intelligence official confirmed Godane was indeed the target, and the Somali government had been informed in advance. Obama's hope was for high-profile trials. In al-Libi's case, that hope may now be fulfilled, most probably in New York. But for now, Godane is free to plan more atrocities.
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Little wonder the Americans are keeping mum on the Barawe flop. Ever since the Black Hawk Down disaster in Mogadishu 20 years ago this month, Somalia has occupied a dreadful place in the American psyche. Since then, thanks to Godane, al-Shabaab has joined in formal alliance with al-Qaida.
As the group has internationalized its outlook, it has attracted hundreds of fighters from the US, Britain and Middle East countries. Latest assessments from Kenya say the Westgate attackers belonged to al-Hijra, the local al-Shabaab affiliate.One unwanted consequence of the American operation may thus be to further dramatise and exacerbate the expanding extremist Islamist challenge across the Horn of Africa region, as Godane, a self-styled global jihadist, surely wants. It further highlights the growing centrality of northern Africa, Yemen and the Saudi peninsula to the fight against al-Qaida.
The relatively more straightforward, less messy Libyan operation may nevertheless have a similar negative effect. Much longer in preparation, it was clearly timed to coincide with the Somali raid, thereby in theory diminishing the public impact in Libya and the Muslim world generally. US officials say it was not directly linked to the calamitous 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, although US counter-terror operations in Libya were stepped up after that incident.
A Libyan spokesman, contradicting statements in Washington, said the Libyan government was unaware of the operation and had not supported it. Such embarrassment is understandable. Libyans were already questioning their current government's pro-western stance.
"Disclosure of the raid is likely to inflame anxieties among many Libyans about their national sovereignty, putting a new strain on the transitional government's fragile authority. Many Libyan Islamists already accuse their interim prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who previously lived in Geneva as part of the exiled opposition to [deposed dictator Muammar] Gaddafi, of collaborating too closely with the west," the New York Times reported.
The two raids may provide Obama with temporary relief from his domestic troubles, distracting attention from the government shutdown. But secretary of state John Kerry's claim on Sunday that the operations showed terrorists they "can run but they can't hide" was a piece of macho bombast straight from the George W Bush school of utter thoughtlessness.
The raids yielded one wanted man. They shed yet more blood. They played the terrorists' game. They invited further retaliation and escalation down the road. They reminded Muslims everywhere that the US, in righteous mood, has scant regard for other countries' borders and national rights. And they did nothing to address the roots and causes of confrontation between Islam and the west.