By Javier Blas in London, Borzou Daragahi in Cairo and Geoff Dyer in Washington
Twenty years after a botched commando raid on Mogadishu gave Washington pause for thought over policing African trouble spot, the US stepped up its fight against Islamist militants with simultaneous special forces operations against targets in Libya and Somalia.
The rare ground operations, just two weeks after the attack on a Kenyan shopping mall by al-Shabaab gunmen in which at least 67 people died, were a further indication of the threat posed by Islamist terrorism in weak and lawless parts of the continent.
“We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror,’’ John Kerry, secretary of state, said on Sunday.
“Members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations literally can run but they can’t hide.’’
With the US government clogged by fiscal disputes in Congress, and President Barack Obama still being accused of vacillation over the conflict in Syria, the raids on the Libyan capital and a town on the Somali coast represented a gamble for the administration but could also leave it open to charges that it was looking to appear tough overseas.
The potential risks were underlined by the fact that the Somalia raid took place almost exactly 20 years to the day of the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, on which the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down was based. US special forces suffered heavy casualties as they tried to capture several war lords.
The US defence department said the operation in Libya led to the detention of Anas al-Liby, an alleged al-Qaeda leader linked to the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. At the same time, navy Seals also raided the house of a suspected leader of al-Shabaab in Barawe, Somalia.
The Libyan government demanded an explanation for what it called the “kidnapping” of Mr Liby, who had been indicted by a federal court in New York for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam which killed more than 200 people.
Relatives of Mr Liby, born Nazih Abdul Hamed Nabih, told local journalists he was snatched in front of house in southern Tripoli as he returned home from early morning prayers.
“The whole operation lasted a few minutes,” said Essam Mohamed Ezzobair, a journalist for the newspaper al-Arab who interviewed the terrorism suspect’s brother and son.
“No one had time to call for help. His son saw two cars surrounding his dad’s car while he was parking in front of their house. The unknown kidnappers broke the car window’s glass, pulled him with force and took him to one of those vehicles, and left very quickly.” At least some of the abductors spoke Arabic with Libyan accents, his son told Mr Ezzobair.
Some fear the abduction will trigger a Libyan backlash against US.
“The US is dealing with people like Anas al-Liby as dangerous al-Qaeda members who are a real danger for their country,” said Abdelghani Amr Al Ruwaimed, a professor of law in Tripoli University. “But it’s unknown to Libyans what role, if any, al- Liby currently has in al-Qaeda.”
US officials said the target of the Somalia raid was a “high value al-Shabaab leader”. Navy Seals attacked a house in the coastal city of Barawe, nearly 250km south of the capital Mogadishu, but retreated before they could confirm if the al-Shabaab leader had been killed. No US personnel were injured, according to officials.
Al-Shabaab, which controls large parts of southern Somalia, had earlier said that western forces had raided a coastal town in the east African country, killing at least one jihadi leader.
Matt Bryden, a Nairobi-based analyst and the former head of the UN monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea, said the US raid came as a weakened al-Shabaab was trying to regain the initiative and attract international attention to its cause.
Reporting by Javier Blas in London, Borzou Daragahi in Cairo and Geoff Dyer in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.