TRIPOLI/MOGADISHU: U.S. raids in Libya and Somalia that captured an Islamist wanted for bombing its Nairobi embassy 15 years ago show Washington's determination to hunt down al Qaeda leaders around the globe, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday.
Libyan Nazih al-Ragye, better known by the cover name Abu Anas al-Liby, was seized by U.S. forces in Tripoli on Saturday, the Pentagon said. A seaborne raid on the Somali port of Barawe, a stronghold of the al Shabaab movement behind last month's attack on a Kenyan mall, failed to take or kill its target.
"We hope this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror," Kerry said during a visit to Bali.
"Those members of al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations literally can run but they can't hide," Kerry said. "We will continue to try to bring people to justice."
The twin raids, two years after a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, demonstrated American reach at a time when Islamist militants have been expanding their presence in Africa - not least in Libya following the Western-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya's government, wary of an Islamist backlash, demanded an explanation for the "kidnapping" of one of its citizens.
The target of the Somali operation was unclear but a U.S. official was quoted as saying it was planned in response to the Nairobi mall attack two weeks ago in which at least 67 were killed. That highlighted the risk of Somalia's rumbling civil conflict destabilising a resource-rich continent where Islamists have been on the rise from west to east in recent years.
Launched in the early hours of Saturday, the Somali raid appears to have featured a beach landing in hostile territory that was followed by an extended firefight. U.S. officials said SEALs conducted the raid and had killed al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab fighters while taking no casualties themselves. Somali police said seven people were killed during the operation.
Somalia's Western-backed government, still trying to establish its authority after two decades of civil war, holds little sway in Barawe, 110 miles (180 km) south of Mogadishu.
Asked of his involvement in the U.S. operation, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said: "We have collaboration with the world and with neighbouring countries in the battle against al Shabaab."
In Tripoli, the seemingly bloodless operation to snatch Liby as he returned home from dawn prayers at a mosque in the capital may have involved some cooperation with the friendly but weak Libyan administration - though the government, facing anger from Islamist militias, issued a public denial.
"The Libyan government is following the news of the kidnapping of a Libyan citizen who is wanted by U.S. authorities," read a statement from the office of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. "The Libyan government has contacted U.S. authorities to ask them to provide an explanation."
Liby, who the FBI says is 49, has been under U.S. indictment since 2000 for his alleged role in bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed 224 people. Of more pressing concern for Washington, however, may have been that al Qaeda appears to be establishing itself in Libya today.
With President Barack Obama wrestling with the legal and political difficulties posed by trying al Qaeda suspects held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Liby may be more likely to face trial in New York, where the indictment was filed.
Liby, who had once been granted political asylum from Gaddafi in Britain, was charged with 20 other people including bin Laden and current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. The U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for helping capture Liby.
Charges relating to him personally accuse him of discussing the bombing of the Nairobi embassy in retaliation for the U.S. intervention in the Somali civil war in 1992-93 and of helping reconnoitre and plan the attack in the years before 1998.
"As the result of a U.S. counterterrorism operation, Abu Anas al-Liby is currently lawfully detained by the U.S. military in a secure location outside of Libya," Pentagon spokesman George Little said without elaborating.
U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, as well as bases in Italy and Germany, would provide ample facilities within a short flight time from the coastal city to mount an arrest operation.
Neighbours and Libyan Islamist militia sources said the capture of Liby appeared to go smoothly: "As I was opening my house door, I saw a group of cars coming quickly from the direction of the house where al-Ragye lives. I was shocked by this movement in the early morning," said one neighbour in the residential district in southern Tripoli.
"They kidnapped him. We do not know who they are."
Abdul Bassit Haroun, a former Islamist militia commander who works with the Libyan government on security, said the U.S. raid would show Libya was no refuge for "international terrorists".
"But it is also very bad that no state institutions had the slightest information about this process, nor do they have a force which was able to capture him," he told Reuters.
"This means the Libyan state simply does not exist."
He warned that Islamist militants, like those blamed for the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a year ago, would hit back violently: "This won't just pass," Haroun said.
"There will be a strong reaction in order to take revenge because this is one of the most important al Qaeda figures."
Since Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 in an uprising backed by Washington and its allies, well armed warlords have contested control of the thinly populated desert state and its vast oil resources. Fighters - and weapons - from Libya played a part in an Islamist revolt in Mali last year and in the related al Qaeda assault on a gas plant in the Algerian desert in January.
The Pentagon confirmed U.S. military personnel had been involved in an operation against what it called "a known al Shabaab terrorist," in Somalia, but gave no more details.
Local people in Barawe and Somali security officials said troops came ashore from the Indian Ocean to attack a house near the shore used by al Shabaab fighters.
One U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the al Shabaab leader targeted in the operation was neither captured nor killed.
U.S. officials said troops, to avoid civilian casualties, disengaged after inflicting casualties on al Shabaab. They said no U.S. personnel were wounded or killed in the operation, which one U.S. source said was carried out by a Navy SEAL team.
A Somali intelligence official said the target of the raid at Barawe, about 110 miles (180 km) south of Mogadishu, was a Chechen commander, who had been wounded and his guard killed.
Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters that foreign forces had landed on the beach and launched an assault at dawn that drew gunfire from rebel fighters in one of the militia's coastal bases.
Britain and Turkey denied his suggestion that their forces had been involved in the attack and taken casualties.
The New York Times quoted an unnamed U.S. security official as saying that the Barawe raid was planned a week and a half ago in response to the al Shabaab assault in neighbouring Kenya: "It was prompted by the Westgate attack,: the official said.
Barawe residents said fighting erupted at about 3 a.m. on Saturday (midnight GMT).
"We were awoken by heavy gunfire last night, we thought an al Shabaab base at the beach was captured," Sumira Nur told Reuters from Barawe by telephone. "We also heard sounds of shells, but we do not know where they landed," she added.