NAIROBI, Kenya -- The target of the U.S. commando raid in the Horn of Africa, a Kenyan of Somali origin known as Ikrimah, is one of al-Shabab's top planners for attacks beyond its base in Somalia, a U.S. official said Sunday.
Though Mr. Ikrimah had not been tied directly to al-Shabab's deadly assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, fears of a similar attack against Western targets broke a deadlock among officials in Washington over whether to conduct the raid.
Special operations commanders were in favor, pushing for a more aggressive response to the rising threat from the group in Somalia, while Obama administration officials were nervous about incurring U.S. military casualties. As it turned out, there were none, according to a U.S. official -- but Mr. Ikrimah was not captured, and there is as yet no evidence that he was killed in the firefight that broke out on the Somali coast in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Mr. Ikrimah is an associate of two al-Qaida operatives who were involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and an airline in Mombasa. SEAL Team 6, the Navy commando unit that killed the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, was dispatched to try to apprehend him.
The Navy SEALs approached the Somali coast under cover of darkness for what was supposed to be a stealthy snatch-and-grab operation from a seaside villa in the port town of Baraawe.
But instead of slipping away with the senior militant they had come to capture, the SEALs found themselves under sustained fire. The U.S. troops retreated unharmed after inflicting casualties on al-Shabab defenders, but the militant group has claimed victory in the skirmish Saturday.
"Al-Shabab can lick their wounds and take some satisfaction that, after all, they repulsed the world's most powerful military force," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. "On the other hand, for al-Shabab it sends a pretty disquieting message that the U.S. is willing to intervene and bring the war right to their doorstep."
Many questions about the raid remained unanswered. The villa might have been a residence belonging to Ahmed Godane, al-Shabab's leader, according to local residents in Baraawe who were reached by phone Sunday. The spokesman for al-Shabab, Sheik Abdiaziz Abu Musab, denied that the villa housed anything other than "normal fighters," saying it was "like any other house -- it is not that special."
Analysts said it was highly unlikely that the raid had resulted in the death of either Mr. Godane or Mr. Ikrimah. If it had, "you would think the U.S. would make a major fuss about it," said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu. "The fact that they don't know they've killed someone or not tells us a lot about the fact that the raid was not too successful."
Saturday's operation came after months of simmering tensions inside the U.S. government about whether direct-assault missions in Somalia were worth the potential risks to U.S. troops.
Former officials and Somalia experts said that the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command has been collecting more precise intelligence for some time about the whereabouts of senior al-Shabab leaders, and have pushed for permission to carry out capture-or-kill missions inside the country.
The raid in Baraawe was the most significant operation by U.S. troops in Somalia since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al-Qaida mastermind, in a raid near the town four years ago.