NAIROBI — A commando raid in enemy territory was never going to be easy, particularly not against the well-armed, experienced fighters of the Somali militant group known as Al Shabaab. But American officials said the operation quickly became even more difficult when Navy SEALs discovered far more civilians than they expected, making for the kind of “imperfect intelligence” that ended up scuttling the mission.
The target of the raid was Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, who uses the nom de guerre Ikrima and is suspected of helping orchestrate a series of grenade attacks and shootings that have killed Kenyan civilians and security personnel.
According to a Kenyan intelligence report, he has been connected to multiple plots against Parliament, the UN office in Nairobi, Kenyan military installations, an Ethiopian restaurant in the Kenyan capital, and an airport, none of which materialized.
But perhaps most important, he is seen as a pivotal connection for an array of extremists across vast distances, from Tanzania to Yemen — a veteran militant with intimate knowledge of the ties between
Kenyan terrorists, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda.
Planning for the raid to capture him began weeks ago, US officials said, but after the deadly siege on the Westgate mall in Nairobi last month the operation took on special urgency. By snatching such an international planner, US officials appeared intent on uncovering the next Westgate before it happened, particularly before a similar attack could take place on an American company or embassy in the region, or perhaps even on the mainland United States.
The Navy SEALs approached the Somali coast under cover of darkness on Saturday, killing several Al Shabaab militants and escaping without any casualties of their own. But they retreated empty-handed, failing to seize Abdikadir or the potential trove of intelligence he might possess and handing Al Shabaab a symbolic victory in the process.
The intelligence flaws were partly to blame, US officials said. As a group of about 20 commandos entered the Al Shabaab compound in Baraawe, Somalia, they encountered many more civilians than they anticipated, including children, US officials briefed on the operation said.
When the gun battle with Al Shabaab fighters erupted, not only was the element of surprise lost, but the mission commander also feared that a prolonged firefight could kill large numbers of civilians.
“The variables were increasing, not decreasing,” said one of the officials, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the operation that have not yet been made public.
It was unclear why the commandos underestimated the number of civilians present. Obtaining precise information in such a hostile environment is extremely difficult, the US official said.
In a statement, the Pentagon spokesman George Little said, “While the operation did not result in Ikrima’s capture, US military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on Al Shabaab leadership at any time of our choosing.”
But there is also the question of whether, by engaging the group so aggressively, the United States might have made itself more of a target. Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for deadly strikes in Uganda and Kenya, two nations that have sent troops to fight it in recent years, killing scores of civilians in what the group has called reprisals for military incursions into Somalia.
The United States has fought Al Shabaab directly as well, conducting missile and air attacks against Somali militants. But the US attacks have been sporadic, and the raid in Baraawe was the most significant operation by American troops in Somalia since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an Al Qaeda operative, in a raid near the town four years ago.