CAIRO — US commandos carried out raids Saturday in two far-flung African countries in a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects. Navy SEALs emerged before dawn from the Indian Ocean to attack a seaside villa in a Somali town known as a gathering point for militants, while American troops assisted by FBI and CIA agents seized a suspected leader of Al Qaeda on the streets of Tripoli, Libya.
In Tripoli, US forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Liby, had a $5 million bounty on his head and his capture in broad daylight ended a 15-year manhunt.
The Somalia raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, in response to a massacre by the militant Somali group Al Shabab at a Nairobi shopping mall. The Navy SEAL team targeted a senior Al Shabab leader in the town of Baraawe and exchanged gunfire with militants in a predawn firefight.
The unidentified Al Shabab leader is believed to have been killed in the firefight, but the SEAL team was forced to withdraw before that could be confirmed, a senior US security official said.
Officials said the timing of the raids was coincidental. But coming on the same day, they underscored the importance of counterterrorism operations in North Africa, where the breakdown of order in Libya since the ouster of the Khadafy government in 2011 and the persistence of Al Shabab in Somalia, which has lacked an effective central government for more than two decades, have helped spread violence and instability in the region.
Abu Anas, the Libyan Al Qaeda leader, was the bigger prize, and officials said Saturday night that he was alive in US custody. While the details about his capture were sketchy, an American official said that he appeared to have been taken peacefully and that “he is no longer in Libya.”
His capture was the latest blow to what remains of the original Al Qaeda organization after a 12-year-old American campaign to capture or kill its leadership, including the killing two years ago of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.
Abu Anas is not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the Al Qaeda organization to like-minded militants in his native Libya.
A senior American official said the Libyan government was involved in the operation, but it was unclear in what capacity. An assistant to the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government said the government was unaware of any operation or Abu Anas’ abduction. Asked if US forces ever conduct raids inside Libya or collaborate with Libyan forces, Mehmoud Abu Bahia, an assistant to the defense minister, replied, “Absolutely not.”
Abu Anas, 49, was born in Tripoli and joined bin Laden’s organization as early as the early 1990s, when it was based in Sudan. He later moved to Britain, where he was granted political asylum as a Libyan dissident. US prosecutors in New York charged him in a 2000 indictment with helping to conduct “visual and photographic surveillance” of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and again in 1995.
Prosecutors said in the indictment that Abu Anas had discussed with another senior Al Qaeda figure the idea of attacking an American target in retaliation for the US peacekeeping operation in Somalia.
American officials say they will want to question Abu Anas for several weeks. But they did not dispute that, with an indictment pending against him in New York, that was most likely his ultimate destination. President Obama has been loath to add to the prisoner count at the US military facility at Guantanamo Bay, and there is precedent for delivering suspected terrorists to New York if they are under indictment there.
The operation is unlikely to quell the continuing questions about the events in Benghazi 13 months ago that led to the deaths of four Americans. But officials say it was a product of the decision, after Benghazi, to bolster the counterterrorism effort in Libya.
Abu Abas was one of the most senior Al Qaeda officials captured in recent years.
His capture coincided with a fierce gunfight that killed 15 Libyan soldiers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood southeast of Tripoli, near the traditional home of Abu Anas’s clan.
A spokesman for the Libyan army general staff, Colonel Ali Sheikhi, said five cars full of armed men in masks pulled up at the army checkpoint at 6:15 a.m. and opened fire at point-blank range.
It was not clear if the assault at the checkpoint was related to the capture of Abu Anas.