Current and former intelligence officials said Monday that the clandestine U.S. military raids on terrorist targets in North Africa suggest the Obama administration is eager to send a message to an emerging generation of al Qaeda fighters: It does not matter where on the globe you are hiding, the U.S. is tracking you and willing to exert stealth military muscle — not just drones — to take you down.
Saturday’s raids — one that netted a suspected high-value al Qaeda operative in Libya and another in which American commandos failed to take down an al Qaeda-affiliate leader in Somalia — also highlighted that America’s fight against the terrorist network is expanding from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region to North Africa, the officials said.
“The extremist footprint in Libya is growing nationwide,” one U.S. official told The Washington Times on Monday, noting that local radical militias such as Ansar al-Shariah are now operating alongside such al Qaeda-affiliate organizations as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and such so-called “AQ-aspirants” as the Egypt-based Muhamed Jamal Network.
While the official said that “there is not much coherence to this extremist universe,” big questions swirled through Washington on Monday over the extent to which such groups in Libya are truly tied to and influenced by the remnants of al Qaeda’s original core in Pakistan and Afghanistan. With dust settling over the weekend’s clandestine raids, speculation over such questions surged — particularly since the raid in Libya resulted in the capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, a long-sought al Qaeda core operative, who was apparently living in the open in Tripoli.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, had relied largely on drones to fight suspected terrorists in both North Africa and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions during recent years. But officials noted Monday how the latest raids marked the first time that U.S. military boots on the ground have been green-lighted for such missions since May 2011 — when a U.S. Navy SEAL team secretly flew into Abbotabad, Pakistan, before killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
A similar SEAL team was dispatched to a seaside villa south of the Somalian capital of Mogadishu on Saturday in pursuit of Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir — a man known locally as “Ikrima” and the suspected leader of al-Shabab, the Somali-based al Qaeda affiliate believed to have carried out the terrorist attack that killed more than 60 people at a shopping mall in Kenya.
While the SEAL team withdrew amid a fierce early-morning firefight in the villa, the Obama administration sought to frame the mission as a success Monday, in that it sent a message likely to reverberate through North Africa.
“U.S. military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on al-Shabab leadership at any time of our choosing,” said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little in a statement circulated Monday by the State Department, the White House and the Defense Department.
“Working in partnership with the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, the United States military will continue to confront the threat posed by al-Shabab,” the statement said. “The United States military has unmatched capabilities and could rely on any of them to disrupt terrorist networks and plots.”
In a separate raid carried almost simultaneously Saturday — but roughly 3,000 miles away in Tripoli, Libya — a U.S. Army Delta Force team successfully captured al-Libi, an al Qaeda leader suspected of involvement in the 1998 bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The sudden flurry of North Africa-focused counterterrorism activity comes as the Obama administration has attempted to stay on the offensive against an evolving al Qaeda threat — one in which the taking down of terror network’s original kingpins — namely bin Laden — has coincided the emergence and gradual strengthening of a complex web of affiliate organizations concentrated most heavily across North Africa.
In a related development Monday, the State Department officially designated an Egyptian-based group suspected of involvement in the Sept. 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic post and CIA facility in Benghazi, Libya, as an al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization. The designation of the Muhammad Jamal Network marked the first time that the Obama administration has been willing to publicly — if only indirectly — to connect al Qaeda to the Benghazi attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Timing the message
Current and former officials cautioned against reading too deeply into the simultaneous nature of the raids, suggesting that the two were not operationally linked.