Yesterday’s daring raid in southern Somalia that targeted and killed a senior al Qaeda leader wanted for several deadly attacks is the latest in a series of covert operations carried out by US and allied special operations. At least four other high-profile raids by ground forces took place in Pakistan, Madagascar, and Syria over the past several years, while others have gone unreported, according to US officials.
The successful Somali raid targeted Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior al Qaeda leader in East Africa as well as a senior leader in Shabaab, al Qaeda’s surrogate in Somalia. Nabhan is thought to train terrorists in Somalia and has been at the forefront in cementing ties between Shabaab and al Qaeda. He has been wanted for his involvement in the 1998 suicide attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as leading the cell behind the 2002 terror attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, against a hotel and an airliner.
Reports of the operation are still unclear as the US military has refused to comment. But various press accounts from eyewitnesses and unnamed intelligence sources provide a glimpse of the operation.
The operation, dubbed Celestial Balance, was approved 11 days ago after US intelligence determined that Nabhan was shuttling back and forth between the Shabaab-controlled port cities of Merka and Kismayo. A car transporting Nabhan and five other foreign fighters was escorted by another car carrying three Shabaab escorts; the vehicles were hit as they stopped for breakfast as they traveled to Kismayo.
According to one witness, upwards of six helicopters were involved in the raid. At least two AH-6 Little Bird special operations attack helicopters strafed the two-car convoy. Other helicopters dismounted Navy SEALs, who seized the body of Nabhan and another, and purportedly took two other wounded fighters captive. An unconfirmed report indicated that Sheikh Hussein Ali Fidow, a senior Shabaab leader, was among those killed. All nine al Qaeda and Shabaab leaders and fighters were killed during the operation.
Somali raid similar to covert raids in Pakistan, Madagascar, and Syria
While yesterday’s raid in Somalia is being hailed as a shift in the US war to target al Qaeda’s leadership, as opposed to the unmanned airstrikes against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well as attacks in Somalia and Yemen, in fact the US has previously pulled the trigger on other direct action missions – operations involving troops entering enemy territory.
Four such direct action missions against wanted al Qaeda leaders have been carried out in the Middle East and in Africa over the past several years.
The largest such raid took place in March 2006 against a training camp in Danda Saidgai in the Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan, Pakistan. US special operation teams raided an al Qaeda camp run by the Black Guard, the elite Praetorian Guard for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.
The air assault resulted in the death of Imam Asad and several dozen members of the Black Guard. In addition to being the camp commander, Asad was a senior Chechen al Qaeda commander and an associate of Shamil Basayev, the Chechen al Qaeda leader killed by Russian security forces in July 2006. US intelligence believed either Zawahiri or bin Laden were at the camp at the time of the raid.
The next high-profile raid took place in the least likely of places, on the island nation of Madagascar. In January 2007, US commandos struck at Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, one of Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-laws with deep roots in al Qaeda as a financier and facilitator, as he visited his home there.
US intelligence had waited for Khalifa to leave the safety of Saudi Arabia and targeted him when he was most vulnerable, US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal. The raid was made to look like a robbery; Khalifa’s computer and other documents were stolen.
The next US commando raid again took place in Pakistan in September 2008, when US special operations forces assaulted the village of Musa Nikow in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of South Waziristan. The raid was controversial; Pakistani authorities claimed that civilians were killed during the raid. The target of the raid is unclear, and no senior al Qaeda or Taliban leader was reported killed or captured.
The last known direct action mission targeted and killed a senior al Qaeda leader based in eastern Syria. In October 2008, US commandos assaulted a compound in the town of Sukkariya near Albu Kamal, across the border from Al Qaeda in Iraq, and killed Abu Ghadiya and several members of his staff.
Ghadiya was the leader of al Qaeda’s extensive network that funnels suicide bombers, foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from Syria into Iraq along the entire length of the Syrian border.
Other such direct action missions have taken place but have avoided the scrutiny of the media, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
The Long War Journal: Senior al Qaeda leader killed in Somalia
The Wall Street Journal: Elite US Forces Kill Top Al Qaeda Fighter
Al Jazeera: Al Qaeda suspect killed in Somalia
The Washington Post: Bin Laden Trail ‘Stone Cold’
The Long War Journal: The Black Guard
The Long War Journal: Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, murdered in Madagascar
The Long War Journal: Pakistanis claim US helicopter-borne forces assaulted village in South Waziristan
The Long War Journal: US strike in Syria “decapitated” al Qaeda’s facilitation network
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.