WASHINGTON — U.S. Navy SEALs were hunting a top commander of the Islamist al-Shabab group in a weekend raid in Somalia, a U.S. official revealed Monday, as Washington defended twin operations in African nations as legal.
Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a Kenyan of Somali origin, who is a foreign fighter with al-Shabab and goes by the alias Ikrima, was the target of Saturday's assault on the southern Somali port of Barawe, the U.S. official said.
The Kenyan is linked with two al-Qaida operatives, now deceased, who played roles in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the official said.
The two al-Qaida operatives, named as Fazul Abdullah Muhammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, are also believed to have played a role in the 2002 attacks against Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya.
The strike in Somali follows last month's siege of an upscale shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, in which 67 people were killed.
The New York Times said that Ikrima, identified as a top al-Shabab planner, was not linked to that attack but the raid was prompted by fears that he could be planning a similar assault on Western targets.
It was not immediately clear what happened to Abdulkadir, in one of the two U.S. raids at the weekend, with U.S. Navy SEALs also targeting and capturing alleged al-Qaida operative, Abu Anas al-Libi, in Libya.
The Times cited a U.S. official as saying Abdulkadir had likely been killed in the strike on his beachfront villa, but the SEALs were forced to withdraw before confirming the kill.
Secretary of State John Kerry Monday insisted the capture of Libi, who was indicted in the 1988 bombings, was legal amid a furious response from Tripoli, which demanded answers about what it called his "kidnap."
Libi had a $5 million FBI bounty on his head, and Kerry described him as "a key al-Qaida figure, and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the U.S. military."
Libi had committed "acts of terror" and had been "appropriately indicted by courts of law, by the legal process," Kerry told reporters on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia.
"The United States of America is going to do everything in its power that is legal and appropriate in order to enforce the law and protect our security," he said.
But when asked whether the United States had informed Libya before the raid, Kerry refused to say.
"We don't get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government on any kind of operation of this kind," he said.
His defense of the operation came after Libya on Sunday demanded an explanation from Washington.
"The Libyan government has been following the reports of the kidnap of one of the Libyan citizens wanted by the authorities in the United States," a government statement said. "As soon as it heard the reports, the Libyan government contacted the U.S. authorities to demand an explanation."
Libi was taken to a U.S. Navy warship in the region after the raid and was being questioned there, a U.S. official said.
Libi, 49, had been indicted in the U.S. federal court in New York for allegedly playing a key role in the east Africa bombings — which left more than 200 dead — and plots to attack U.S. forces.
The Tripoli operation ended a 13-year manhunt for Libi, whose given name is Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie. FBI and CIA agents assisted U.S. troops in the raid, U.S. media reported.
His arrest paves the way for his extradition to New York to face trial.
Citing surveillance camera footage, Libi's son, Abdullah al-Raghie, said his father had been seized by masked gunmen armed with pistols, and that some of them were Libyans.
He claimed the Libyan government was implicated in his father's disappearance, a claim Tripoli vehemently denies.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday the twin operations sent "a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable."
"We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests, and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values," he added.