CAIRO — American commandos carried out raids Saturday in two 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 town in Somalia known as a gathering point for militants, while American troops assisted by FBI and CIA agents seized a suspected leader of al-Qaida on the streets of Tripoli, Libya, U.S. officials said.
In Tripoli, U.S. forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his nom de guerre, Anas al-Libi, had a $5 million bounty on his head and his capture in broad daylight ended a 15-year manhunt.
The raid in Somalia was planned more than a week ago, officials said, in response to a massacre by the militant Somali group al-Shabab at a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The Navy SEAL team targeted an al-Shabab leader in the town of Barawe 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 U.S. security official said. The officials spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
The officials said the timing of the two 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 Gadhafi 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 across the region.
The military may have pursued both targets simultaneously to avoid the possibility that news of one raid might spook into hiding the target of the other, or that a public backlash in one country might rattle the governments of the other into withdrawing its quiet cooperation. It was unclear if Washington was planning other raids as well.
But at a moment when President Barack Obama's popularity is flagging under the weight of his standoff with congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for his reversal in Syria, the simultaneous attacks are bound to fuel accusations that the administration was eager for a showy victory.
Al-Libi, the Libyan al-Qaida leader, was the bigger prize, and officials said Saturday night that he was in U.S. 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 grave blow to what remains of the original al-Qaida 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.
Al-Libi is not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said.
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 al-Libi's abduction.
Al-Libi, 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. U.S. prosecutors in New York charged him in a 2000 indictment with helping to conduct "visual and photographic surveillance" of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and again in 1995. Prosecutors said in the indictment that al-Libi had discussed with another senior al-Qaida figure the idea of attacking an American target in retaliation for a U.S. peacekeeping operation in Somalia in the early 1990s.
After the 1998 bombing, the British police raided his apartment and found an 18-chapter terrorist training manual. It included advice on car bombing, torture, sabotage and disguise.
The operation to capture al-Libi was several weeks in the making, a U.S. official said, and Obama was regularly briefed as the suspect was tracked in Tripoli.
Al-Libi's 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' clan.
A spokesman for the Libyan army general staff, Col. 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 al-Libi.
The raid in Somalia that targeted the leader of al-Shabab was the most significant raid by U.S. troops in that lawless country since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaida mastermind, near the same town four years ago.
The town, Barawe, a small port south of Mogadishu, is known as a gathering place for al-Shabab's foreign fighters.
The military assault was prompted by the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi two weeks ago, a U.S. official said. More than 60 people were killed when al-Shabab militants overran the mall.
Witnesses in Barawe described a firefight lasting over an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity confirmed the raid.
A spokesman for al-Shabab said that one of its fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault.
A spokesman for the Kenyan military said Saturday that it had identified four of the attackers at the mall from surveillance footage as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and a man known only as Umayr.
A U.S. official said it was still unclear whether any Americans were involved in the Westgate siege, though many Kenyan officials said they now believed that there were only four attackers — far fewer than the 10 to 15 the government had previously reported.