Raids Show the Limits of U.S. Military Strikes
Around the same time about 3,000 miles away, highly trained commandos from the same Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden slipped out of the sea and stormed into a villa in Somalia to capture another man high on America’s target list. Met by a hail of bullets and then a lengthy gunfight, they withdrew without their quarry from a country best known to many Americans as the scene of “Black Hawk Down.”
The latest chapter in President Obama’s efforts to combat Al Qaeda and its loose affiliates turned out to be a tale of two raids, one that succeeded and one that did not. The seizure of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, from outside his home in Tripoli, where he was living largely in the open, represented a long-sought victory for the United States. But the failure of the Somalia operation underscored the limits of America’s power even for one of its most storied military units.
Thanks in part to the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan by SEAL Team Six in 2011, many Americans have become accustomed to the triumphs of Special Forces and see them as a substitute for the larger-scale military operations that characterized Iraq and Afghanistan for so many years. The disparate results in two corners of North Africa over the weekend served as a reminder of the uncertainties and dangers inherent in any form of warfare.
Mr. Obama, who authorized both raids, made no comment about them on Sunday. But administration officials acknowledged that the Somalia operation went awry. “It did not achieve the objective,” said one official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. “It achieved other things in the sense that these guys are now trying to figure out what happened, trying to figure out who dimed out who, and there’s a certain amount of confusion there.”
Military veterans said that the contrasting results reflected the challenges of counterterrorism. “It’s hard to think of a more complex mission than an amphibious raid into strongly held enemy territory,” said Gen. Carter F. Ham, the retired head of the military’s Africa Command, who noted that he had not been briefed on the details of the operation. While only one of the two targets was captured, no Americans were hurt. “The reality is that there’s no such thing as 100 percent success except in the movies,” said a defense official who asked not to be named. “This was a better-than-average day.”
The nearly simultaneous raids came at a time when Mr. Obama is trying to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and shift the nation’s war against terrorists away from the prolific use of drone strikes that has characterized his presidency. The twin operations on the African coast underscored the evolving geography of the terror threat away from its Middle East and South Asian epicenters.
They also may have set another precedent as the United States made clear it had little trust in Libya’s security services. “This appears to be the first unilateral operation under military authorities to capture someone outside of war zones or ungoverned places like Somalia,” said Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff at the Pentagon and C.I.A. under Mr. Obama.
But to Washington, Libya these days is largely ungoverned space, with its government’s ability to control the country in rapid decline. Mr. Bash, now a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies in Washington, said it was possible that parts of Libya’s government were aware of the operation despite official protests on Sunday. But he said, “Our interests are not always aligned with theirs, and sometimes we have to act because they lack either the will or the capability, or both.”
The Libya raid traces its origins to last year, according to the administration official, when national security agencies believed they had an understanding of the whereabouts of Abu Anas and began formulating a plan to capture him. Abu Anas, who was indicted in 2000 in the 1998 bombings of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was a much-coveted target, but in addition to the logistics of capturing him, government officials had to consider the legalities.
The plan to go after him was discussed repeatedly by officials known as the deputies committee, composed of No. 2 officials from across government, before it was refined and sent to cabinet secretaries for their recommendation and finally to Mr. Obama.
The Somalia operation came together more recently, just in the last few months, after simmering debate inside the government about whether direct assault missions were worth the risk to American lives.
State Department officials in particular have argued that such missions would have little strategic value and questioned whether Shabab, the Somalia-based extremist group that said it was behind an attack by gunmen in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last month that killed dozens of people, was anything more than a regional nuisance. The administration until now has relied on troops from other African countries, trained by American private contractors, to fight Shabab forces in Somalia. But last month’s attack in Nairobi led some American officials to reconsider Shabab’s ability to sow chaos beyond Somalia’s borders.
In terms of diplomatic relations, the Somalia raid was in some ways the easier decision. “It’s less of a concern with the Somalia operation where there’s already this established infrastructure and a lot of cooperation on Al Shabab,” the administration official said. “Libya with a new, fragile government, the concerns were different and very real. We had to weigh what the risks and benefits are to doing this on the government, on the security situation for our people on the ground.”
Mr. Obama signed off on both operations within the last two weeks, leaving their exact timing to security officials, the official said. When it became clear last week that windows of opportunity for each were opening, Lisa Monaco, his counterterrorism adviser, began updating him regularly on the progress.
The administration is also trying to bring to justice the perpetrators of last year’s deadly assault on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others.
Some critics pointed to the failure on Sunday to do that. “Why if we were able to get al-Libi we didn’t get the operatives from Benghazi?” Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, asked on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.” “We know where they are and they’ve been almost open and notorious now for quite a while.”
The capture of Abu Anas, also called al-Libi, appeared to come off without a hitch from the American point of view. He was driving a black Hyundai sport utility vehicle to his three-story house in the Noflieen neighborhood in northeast Tripoli when the four vans rushed in from three directions, said his son, Abdullah, 20, who was in the house.
The wife of the Qaeda suspect heard the commotion and watched from the window as about 10 armed men surrounded the car. “They smashed his car window,” Abdullah said in an interview. “There was blood on one of his sandals that was left behind so we think he was injured from the broken glass.”
Two Libyans among the group ordered his father to get into the minivan, which had a sliding side door, he said. “What’s going on? What do you want?” Abu Anas asked, his son said, raising his voice apparently to alert the family inside the house. The Libyans told him to get inside the vehicle.
There was no shooting, his son said, and his father was not carrying a weapon. “They were all new vehicles, with no license plates,” he added. He expressed outrage at what the Libyan government called an abduction. “We all came out to condemn the killing of the American ambassador and what happens when this person is abducted in front of his house?” Abdullah asked. “Do the human rights organizations make a statement about that?”
In Somalia, the Navy SEALs were seeking a Shabab commander known as Ikrimah, according to an American official. He was not linked to the attack on the Nairobi mall but was said to be an associate of two Qaeda operatives involved in one of the 1998 embassy bombings as well as the 2002 attacks on a hotel and an airline in Mombasa, Kenya.
But a Shabab spokesman claimed the militants had been warned of the SEALs’ arrival. The SEALs were forced to pull out after an intense firefight, and officials in Washington said they were not sure if the unit had managed to kill the target it was supposed to seize, but added that it seemed unlikely.