Navy SEALs Somalia raid: Will such strikes set a new pattern?

Navy SEALs Somalia raid and the Libya raid signal shifting antiterrorism tactics, some say. Others paint the Navy SEALs Somalia and Libyan raids as anomalies that say little about long-term US strategy. 

Abdullah al Ragye (L), son of Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, speaks to reporters at the family home in Tripoli, Libya, October 6, 2013.

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A successful US commando raid in Libya and a failed raid in Somalia, both this weekend, have roused a debate about what unilateral US action in sovereign countries accomplishes and what it indicates about US strategy.

The operation in Somalia was aborted when members of the US Navy SEAL Team Six came under heavier-than-expected fire from the beachside villa that was their target. But the raid in Tripoli succeeded in capturing Al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Liby, who is now reportedly being held and questioned on a US Navy ship. It's a major development in a storyline that began 14 years ago, when Mr. Liby went on the run after an arrest and release in Britain.

A Telegraph story on Al Libi traces his long career:

Identifiable by a scar on the left side of his face, al-Libi had earned respect within the terrorist network for his sophisticated computer skills and outstanding performance at training camps.

He had begun conducting "photographic surveillance of the US Embassy in Nairobi" in late 1993, as part of a plot to attack it, according to Jamal al-Fadl, an al-Qaeda member turned US government witness.


Later, "bin Laden looked at the picture of the American embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber," al-Fadl told a judge.

Four years later, the twin bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 224 people and injured more than 4,000 – and gave a clear statement of al-Qaeda's future intent.

The New York Times argues that the raids show the limits of US military strikes, but puts these particular strikes into a positive overall context:

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.”

A BBC analysis casts the raids as a conscious shift away from full-scale conflicts like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The twin US commando raids to seize senior Al Qaeda operatives in two different African countries on [Oct. 5] show Washington's preference for highly targeted special operations, where it believes its mission has a high probability of success.

While the Obama administration has sought to avoid or extract itself from big, costly theatres of conflict like Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, it has invested heavily in the joint counter-terrorism and special operations sphere, to go after what the US calls "high-value targets".

But commando raids are not, of course, risk free – even when successful. The Monitor reports that even Libyans who recognized its necessity were not happy about the raid.

Most Libyans will understand why US authorities seized a chance to apprehend Mr. Liby, says Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan affairs think tank in Tripoli. “But not everyone will be happy with the loss of sovereignty.”

The US says that Liby’s capture was lawful, but it’s unclear whether Libyan leaders knew that it would take place. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has called the raid a “kidnapping” and demanded an explanation, reports Reuters.

This calculation – the importance of national sovereignty versus the argument that a war against global terrorism must quickly and regularly cross borders – echoes some of the analysis of the dramatic 2011 US commando raid in Pakistan that killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. In both Libya and Pakistan, the US had an opportunity to reach out through official channels or backchannels to at least nominally friendly governments, but opted instead for unilateral military option, in part because of concerns about the intentions and capabilities of the governments in question.

Whether the two attacks represent a shift in strategy depends on the scope of your context. The Monitor argues that they are a significant departure from Obama's low-risk and relatively low-visibility campaign of drone strikes, but USA Today rejects that take:

Security analysts say it is unlikely the two raids signal a dramatic shift in policy, as there were specific conditions that provided rare opportunities. Both Libya and Somalia have weak central governments that lack the ability to quickly detect a raiding party.

The failed Somalia raid might ultimately prove counterproductive to the fight against Al Shabab, according to the Monitor. 

The operation could have opposite its intended result of discouraging further attacks. Analysts warn that even earlier successful targeted strikes against Al Shabab, a Somalia-based Islamist militant group, failed to curb the group's capacity to carry out international terror attacks, and that failed missions could in fact bolster its support and recruitment.

US involvement in Somalia has been particularly fraught since the highly controversial 1993 "Battle of Mogadishu" raid dramatized in Mark Bowden's book "Black Hawk Down" and the Ridley Scott movie of the same name. Since that incident, most US efforts against the Shabab have avoided "boots on the ground" infantry conflict; the last known such event before this weekend's operation was a 2009 strike that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an Al Qaeda ringleader who was working closely with Al Shabab fighters.

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