US commando raids: What did they achieve?

US Navy Seals. File photo In Somalia the raid by US Navy commandos was a failure of intelligence

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The twin US commando raids to seize senior al-Qaeda operatives in two different African countries on 5 October 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 how effective in the long run are raids like the ones in Libya and Somalia over the weekend?

In Libya, US Army Delta Force commandos achieved exactly what they set out to do.

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When the most highly trained commandos from the most powerful military in the world attack a sandal-wearing militia and are forced to retreat, this will be seized on as a propaganda victory for al-Shabab”

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Deploying from a forward base in a Nato country, they apprehended a fugitive on the UN al-Qaeda watch-list with a $5m (£3.1m) bounty on his head.

Washington suspects Abu Anas al-Liby of helping to mastermind al-Qaeda's simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Commenting on his capture, the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday: "These operations in Libya and Somalia send a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice."

The Libyan government has publicly called on for an explanation from the US, while at the same time saying it hopes this will not upset their relations.

Abu Anas al-Liby was no friend of Libya's government but to its citizens this US raid could be taken as a humiliating infringement of national sovereignty.

Anas al-Liby

Anas al-Liby, FBI pic from 2001
  • Born 30 March 1964 in Tripoli, Libya. Also known as Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai
  • Believed to have joined al-Qaeda in 1990s
  • Given political asylum in UK
  • Rumoured to have returned to Libya during 2011 civil war
  • Charged by New York prosecutors in 2000 with involvement in the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania US embassy bombings
  • One of FBI's "most wanted terrorists" with $5m bounty for his capture

The US insists that the detention of this long-sought suspect is "lawful" and the bringing to justice of such an allegedly dangerous man will be popular back home.

But in North Africa this raid could well prompt more recruits to join anti-Western jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Military weight

In Somalia the raid by US Navy commandos from Seal Team Six failed and they returned empty-handed.

This was a failure of intelligence on two counts. The al-Shabab leader, possibly Ahmed Godane himself, was not at home, and the beachside villa they hoped to find him in turned out to be well defended.

When commandos swim ashore under cover of darkness they are inevitably limited in how much firepower they can carry and the option to withdraw was the pragmatic one.

Yet when the most highly trained commandos from the most powerful military in the world attack a sandal-wearing militia and are forced to retreat, this will be seized on as a propaganda victory for al-Shabab.

After the debacle of Blackhawk Down in Mogadishu in 1993, the Pentagon steered clear of Somalia for years.

But more recently it has conducted a number of often unpublished raids into that country, with the blessing of the UN-backed government there.

Sometimes they involve unmanned aerial drones, sometimes they involve US Navy Seals. A US Special Forces raid in 2009 on Barawe - the same town as this weekend's raid - located and killed its intended target, the al-Qaeda leader in Somalia, Ali Saleh Al-Nabhan.

The US will undoubtedly be planning more such special operations raids, its plans given urgency by the scale and body count of al-Shabab's murderous attack in September on a Nairobi shopping mall.

The message Washington clearly wants to convey to its enemies is: "We will find you and get you, however long it takes."

But to many in the countries visited by such raids, there will be accusations of a global superpower throwing its military weight around and acting outside the law to serve its own interests.

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