NICHOLAS KULISH and ERIC SCHMITT
Nairobi: A Navy SEAL team targeted a senior leader of al-Shabab militant group in a raid on his seaside villa in the Somali town of Baraawe on Saturday, US officials said, in response to a deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall for which the group had claimed responsibility.
The SEAL team stealthily approached the beachfront house by sea before exchanging gunfire with militants in a predawn firefight that was the most significant raid by US troops on Somali soil since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaeda mastermind, near the same town four years ago.
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 US official said. Such operations by US forces are rare because they carry a high risk, and indicate that the target was considered a high priority. Baraawe, a small port town south of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, is known as a gathering place for al-Shabab's foreign fighters.
"The Baraawe raid was planned a week and a half ago," said a US security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about a classified operation. "It was prompted by the Westgate attack," he added, referring to the mall in Nairobi that was overrun by militants two weeks ago, leaving more than 60 dead.
Witnesses in the area described a firefight lasting over an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the raid, saying, "The attack was carried out by the American forces, and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack."
A spokesman for al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia, said that one of its fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault. US officials initially reported that they had seized the al-Shabab leader, but later backed off of that account. The senior US official said there were no reports of American casualties in the operation.
The deadly assault on the Westgate shopping mall was a stark reminder of the power and reach of the Islamist group, which has had a series of military setbacks in recent years and was widely viewed as weakened.
The FBI sent dozens of agents to Nairobi after the shopping mall siege to help Kenyan authorities with the investigation. US officials fear that al-Shabab could attempt a similar attack on US soil, perhaps employing several of the group's Somali-American recruits.
Another US official said it was still unclear whether any Americans were involved in the Westgate mall episode, although there were growing indications that fewer attackers took part in the siege than the 10 to 15 militants the government had previously announced.
A spokesman for the Kenyan military said Saturday that it had identified four of the attackers from surveillance footage. Local news media reported their names as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and a man known only as Umayr.
"I can confirm that those are the names of the terrorists," said Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, the spokesman.
The attack was carried out by the American forces, and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.
The footage, broadcast on Kenyan television Friday night, showed four of the attackers moving about the mall with nonchalance, no hint in their demeanour that they had stormed a shopping centre and massacred dozens of people, much less that they feared an imminent counterassault from Kenyan security services.
One loitered in the grocery checkout aisle, talking on his mobile phone . Another slouched in a storage room like a worker on break.
At least one of the four men, Nabhan, is Kenyan, and believed to be related to Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan of al-Qaeda.
The elder Nabhan was a suspect in the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002 and the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
He was one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa when US commandos killed him in September 2009 in an audacious daytime attack. Four military helicopters shot at two trucks rumbling through the desert, killing six foreign fighters, including Nabhan, and three Somali members of al-Shabab.
Nabhan was of Yemeni descent but was born in Mombasa, on Kenya's coast. Kenyan news media reported that the younger Nabhan also came from Mombasa, and was among the Kenyans who travelled to Somalia to train and fight with the Shabab.
Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said the tactics used in the Westgate attack were similar to those used by al-Shabab in a number of operations in Somalia this year. But he also said that local help was needed to pull off an attack on that scale, and that several of the men identified as taking part in the attack were connected to group's Kenyan affiliate, known as Al Hijra.
"We should certainly expect al-Hijra and al-Shabab to try again," Bryden said. "And we should expect them to have the capacity to do so."
The raid Saturday appeared to have been intended to blunt those capabilities. A witness in Baraawe said the house was known as a place where senior foreign commanders stayed, although he could not say whether they were there at the time of the attack.
The witness said 12 well-trained al-Shabab fighters scheduled for a mission abroad were staying there at the time of the assault.
There was some confusion as to exactly what happened before sunrise on Saturday. Witnesses described the SEAL team using silencers in the initial attack, but a loud firefight afterward. Before confirmation that a US SEAL team was behind the attack, an al-Shabab spokesman said British and Turkish forces were involved, which both countries immediately denied.
"The attackers were not able to enter the house," the spokesman, Sheik Abdiaziz Abu Musab, said in a telephone interview. "Our fighters were fighting very hard."
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