Commando raid in Somalia is latest in covert operations across the globe

Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Click to view.

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

ABC News: US launches military strike in Somalia against al Qaeda target

AFP: Somali Al Qaeda-linked group vows to avenge US raid

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.

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  • Tyler says:

    A theory for you to disregard.
    Saudi Arabia arrests an Iranian-based Al Qaeda operative on September 3. US launches strike on September 8 perhaps killing Al Qaeda and HuJ HVTs, Pakistan captures much of the Swat Taliban leadership on September 11, US kills Saleh Nabhan and perhaps several other Shabaab leaders on September 14. At least one Predator strike targeting foreign fighters in Pakistan the same day.
    A Global ‘Ramadan’ Offensive of America’s own design?

  • kp says:

    NY Times has some interesting info:
    U.S. Kills Top Qaeda Militant in Southern Somalia

    “Mr. Nabhan played an increasingly important role as a senior instructor for new militant recruits, including some Americans, as well as a liaison to senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, the senior American adviser said.”

    One can’t help think about the Somali-Americans from Minnosota and what they might want to do when they return.

    The helicopters, with commandos firing .50-caliber machine guns [probably GAU 19/A] and other automatic weapons, quickly disabled the trucks, according to villagers in the area, and several of the Shabab fighters tried to fire back. Shabab leaders said that six foreign fighters, including Mr. Nabhan, were quickly killed, along with three Somali Shabab. The helicopters landed, and the commandos inspected the wreckage and carried away the bodies of Mr. Nabhan and the other fighters for identification, a senior American military official said.”

    With an MH-6/AH-6 attack they couldn’t carry too much stuff off (unless they had an MH-60 or two come in when the area was secure).

    3 Somalis … Al-shaaba leader + bodyguards?

    6 foreigners. Nabhan + 5 others. I wonder if any are US citizens?

    One also wonders if the work to locate the missing Somali-Americans set this up.

    The other point is all the bodies disappear. So the AQ can never be sure if we actually killed them or not. What did they know? That can disrupt ongoing plots. Plus any papers/computers/phones that they were carrying will all yield interesting information. That’s why they went in to check the kill and recover intelligence. I suspect the US is already worried about an attack in the US coming from these guys — and a Hellfire into a truck doesn’t yield enough intel for that. Plus it sends a message that for a HVT we will put boots on the ground.

    Nice op and an interesting name “Celestial Balance”.

  • Chris says:

    Snuffed an HVT and snatched his boys.. Good job.. I was growing tired of seeing all these Al-Shiska-Shabaab walking around with impunity..

  • Marlin says:

    These articles make a compelling case that it might probably have been typical al Qaeda heavy-handedness that drove the intelligence needed to make Operation Celestial Balance a success.

    But maybe it wasn’t the Abyssinian rabble that was the problem. Maybe Nabhan and Shabab should have taken more notice of the wishes of the Somali people.
    Nabhan was killed in Brava. This is the area where Shabab started its grave-desecration campaign and greatly anatagonized the population. Perhaps this is why the Americans finally were able to find him.

    Ethiopian News and Views: Sep 14, 2009: Game over for another Qaeda/Shabab “boy scout”

    Since they began to capture large swathes of southern Somalia, radical Islamists have been undertaking a programme of destroying mosques and the graves of revered religious leaders from the Sufi branch of Islam.
    Graves are being desecrated wherever al-Shabab is in control. The town of Brave is home to a number of minority groups. Among them are the Sufi Bravenese, a Bantu group who speak a language unique to their town called Chimbalazi, similar to Swahili. Many of the graves of their religious leaders have been attacked.

    BBC: Somali rage at grave desecration

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/16/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Edward says:

    So the AQ can never be sure if we actually killed them or not.
    Intriguing strategic move here, to deny closure… the faster a confirmation reaches surviving associates, the faster they can react accordingly.


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