A Navy SEAL team targeted a senior leader of the Shabab militant group in a raid on his seaside villa in the Somali town of Baraawe on Saturday, American 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, firing on the unidentified target in a predawn gunbattle that was the most significant raid by American troops on Somali soil since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, near the same town four years ago.
The Shabab leader was believed to have been killed in the firefight, but the SEALS were forced to withdraw before that could be confirmed, a senior American official said. Such operations by American 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 the Shabab’s foreign fighters.
“The Baraawe raid was planned a week and a half ago,” said an American 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 the 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. American official initially reported that they had seized the Shabab leader, but later backed off of that account. The deadly assault on the Westgate shopping mall was a stark reminder of the power and reach of the Islamist group, which had a series of military setbacks in recent years and was widely viewed as weakened.
The F.B.I. sent dozens of agents to Nairobi after the shopping mall siege to help Kenyan authorities with the investigation. United States officials fear that the Shabab could attempt a similar attack on American soil, perhaps employing several of the group’s Somali-American recruits.