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.
"Al-Libi's presence in Libya suggests core al-Qaeda could be trying to make inroads there," the U.S. official told The Times.
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.
But there was speculation among some in Washington on Monday about whether the U.S. Special Forces community sought to send an enhanced message to al-Shabab with the timing of the Somalia raid, since it coincided nearly to the day with 20th anniversary of the shooting down of two U.S. military Black Hawk helicopters by militants in Mogadishu — an incident made intimately familiar to Americans in the 2001 Hollywood movie "Black Hawk Down."
With regard to the Libya raid, some questioned Monday why U.S. authorities chose now to go after al-Libi, who was believe to have been active in al Qaeda's leadership years ago but now living largely out in the open in Tripoli. Some Republicans, who have criticized the Obama administration for failing to capture other militants suspected of involvement last year's Benghazi attacks, were quick to raise questions about the raid.
"Why if we were able to get al-Libi we didn't get the operatives from Benghazi?" Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and an outspoken proponent of taking the fight to terrorists, asked during an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "We know where they are and they've been almost open and notorious now for quite awhile."
In August, it was revealed that the Justice Department had filed criminal charges against Libyan militia leader Ahmed Khatallah on suspicion of involvement in the Benghazi attack.
In a twist that has shocked some observers, Mr. Khatallah has over the past year granted repeated interviews to Western news organizations and, on Monday he told The Associated Press that he is not worried about being next on the list for capture by the Americans.
One former official said it was likely that intelligence about Mr. al-Libi's exact whereabouts became suddenly actionable and emphasized the strategic relevance of messaging behind both the operation that captured him in Libya, as well as the Somalia raid.
"If for some reason you're on our bad-boy list, somehow we're gonna get ya — I think that's the real message that Obama wants to send right now," said Dell Dailey, a retired Army general who headed the Joint Special Operations Command during the years following 9/11 and later the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism.
The trouble with Libya
Terrorism analysts have for months pointed to Libya as an emerging safe zone for operatives from a host of al Qaeda affiliates, who've seized upon a lack of security as well as a government power vacuum that followed the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The nation's porous borders, the ready availability weaponry that surrounded the revolution and the subsequent government's relative lack of power have made Libya "a very soft target for these transactional terror groups," says Dirk Vandewalle, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who has written extensively on Libya and traveled regular to Tripoli over the past two years.
Mr. Vandewalle said he believes the U.S. intelligence community is now monitoring Libya closely, but struggling to pin down reliable intelligence that can be acted upon successfully in the Libya's evolving and chaotic security landscape.
"The older generation of al Qaeda, people like al-Libi have been pretty systematically hunted down," he said. "I think what we don't know is how fast some of these positions are being replenished by newer recruits and where exactly these newer recruits are coming from. I think there's a good chunk of intelligence that's missing on that second generation."
Following last year's attacks in Benghazi, he said, "my hunch is that Libya is probably one of the most closely watched countries from our intelligence perspective."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.