WASHINGTON — When Navy SEALs were met with gunfire as they attempted a raid on a seaside militant compound in southern Somalia early Saturday, the commander of the operation had the authority to call in a US airstrike. Instead, he opted to retreat.
The site had been under surveillance, and the operation against an Al Qaeda-affiliated group had been planned for months, current and former Obama administration officials said Monday. A drone strike against the Al Shabab compound had been rejected, officials said, because there were too many women and children inside, the same reason the commander opted against an airstrike once the operation was underway.
Destroying the compound probably would also have defeated a primary purpose of the mission: to capture, not kill, a Kenyan-born Al Shabab commander named Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima. He has long been on a US ‘‘capture or kill’’ list, along with Al Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, known as Godane, and was considered the group’s primary planner of attacks outside Somalia.
As they provided more details of the aborted operation in the town of Barawe, current and former administration officials said it was designed within restrictive counterterrorism guidelines President Obama signed in the spring. The guidelines say that lethal force can be used only when there is a ‘‘near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed.’’
If civilians had not been present at the compound, a senior administration official said, ‘‘we might just as well have done a standoff strike,’’ hitting the site with missiles launched from piloted aircraft or unmanned drones. The desire to avoid hitting noncombatants, the official said, ‘‘accounts for the fact that ultimately [US forces] disengaged’’ when they ‘‘met resistance.’’
The guidelines also codify a long-stated but rarely implemented administration preference for capturing rather than killing terrorism targets.
Officials cited the Somalia operation, as well as the capture of an Al Qaeda figure in Tripoli, Libya, on the same day, as proof that the administration is not overly enamored with the relatively risk-free use of drones at the expense of detaining militants to glean intelligence.
‘‘To people who had said we don’t undertake capture operations, here are two,’’ the senior official said.
The decision to launch the raid closely followed an Al Shabab attack last month on a Nairobi shopping mall frequented by westerners. Public administration statements Monday also alleged that Ikrima was ‘‘closely associated’’ with the Al Qaeda planners of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But administration officials, speaking about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, said neither of those events was the justification for the attempted raid. The mall attack, they said, served only as further indication that Al Shabab’s expanded range would soon directly target Americans in the region.
Equally important for the timing of the raid was the growing concentration of militant leaders in Barawe, where they had set up headquarters after being driven out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and the city of Kismayo by a multinational African force that is bolstering Somalia’s new elected civilian government.
Barawe was considered a relatively soft target. ‘‘It obviously makes a big difference if you can come ashore,’’ rather than risk the noise and exposure of an approach by land or air, according to a former US counterterrorism official. ‘‘It’s not like there’s any air defense there,’’ the former official said. ‘‘My guess is something went wrong.’’
US officials have not commented on Al Shabab assertions that the group was warned of the operation, in which SEALs approached in small boats in the predawn hours to seize Ikrima.
Officials and analysts in Nairobi said Ikrima tried to expand the reach of Al Shabab into Kenya, a critical US ally in East Africa.
He is also suspected of being a key figure in Al Hijra, a shadowy Kenyan group that has become Al Shabab’s wing inside its neighbor.
A Kenyan citizen of Somali descent, Ikrima routinely travels between Kenya and Somalia, according to analysts. He has planned or carried out major attacks in both countries since 2011, according to Kenyan intelligence officials, UN security experts, and regional analysts.
It is unclear whether Ikrima was connected to the Nairobi mall attack, but analysts said it is plausible that he was one of the planners.