Twenty years to the day after the failed "Black Hawk Down" Ranger mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, the commander of a Navy SEAL team attempting to extract a terrorist kingpin from a coastal village pulled his unit out as the mission started to founder and it became clear the militant leader couldn't be taken alive.
The snatch-and-grab mission on Oct. 4 began as planned. SEAL Team Six, the same unit that targeted Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, approached the Somali coast in the darkness. Their target, according to U.S. military officials: the leader of al Qaeda's East Africa branch, a Somali-born Kenyan named Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima . Elements of the unit got past the beach, military officials tell Foreign Policy. But at some point during the perilous mission, the SEAL team came under heavy fire.
It soon became clear to the unit commander that the team could not capture Ikrima alive, and he determined that they should abruptly withdraw without their prize.
The risk to civilian life, as well as the threat to the team itself also drove what was described as a "conscious decision" to pull back out, a military official said. "Once the gunfight breaks out, they realize they're not going to be able to capture this guy without the risk becoming too high," the official told FP, confirming news first reported by CNN. "They made a decision, 'hey, not today,' and out they came."
The operation came around the same time another capture mission was unfolding in Libya. Delta Force operators caught Abu Anas al-Libi, suspected of planning the attacks against the American embassies in Africa in 1998. That mission appeared to be accomplished, as the team got Libi and he is now reportedly in a makeshift brig aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea. Capturing suspected terrorists has not been standard operating procedure for the Obama White House, which has used drones to take out dozens of suspected militants. But the potential value of gleaning untold volumes of intelligence from a captured militant as opposed to a dead one appears to have driven both missions.
Some members of the SEAL team operating in Somalia may not have even been born when the humanitarian mission in 1993 went awry, killing 18 U.S. soldiers and wounding 79 more, with the bodies of two dragged through the dirty streets of the broken city. But that failed "Black Hawk Down" operation has never quite dissipated from the collective memory of the military and still shapes its thinking today. The Obama White House, meanwhile, has grown hooked on the antiseptic nature of drone warfare in which no American can be hurt. It is likely that the decisions surrounding Somali mission on Friday were heavily influenced by these factors as well.
It's pure conjecture, said one analyst, but the operation falling on the anniversary of the Battle for Mogadishu in 1993 had to play a role into the political as well as operational sensitivity of the mission.
"It's important to note that the U.S. is very sensitive, even allergic, to the risk of losing any personnel, particularly in Somalia, given the history of its interventions in that country," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "Death or casualties in any Somali-related operation would rebound pretty badly for the United States."
Friday's raid was to snag Ikrima, a man who intelligence officials concluded was planning attacks against Western targets. According to The New York Times, Ikrima was not thought to be connected to the recent attack at the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi. But he did give the order that launched a deadly attack on the United Nations compound in Mogadishu earlier this year, and the Pentagon says he's closely associated with two now-dead al Qaeda operatives who helped in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi and in 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombassa that killed both Kenyans and Israeli citizens. He's thought to pose a significant risk to American national security interests.
Roger Carstens, a retired special forces officer who has spent extensive time on the ground in Somalia within the last year, said it's not a surprise that the SEAL commander might declare "dry hole" -- the target the unit was attempting to snag was not obtainable. "War and killing," he said, "is a business-like proposition."
"Risk is assessed, efforts are produced, and progress is ruthlessly measured," he said. "If the costs exceed the benefits, a withdrawal is ordered; No harm, no foul."
Carstens said he believes regardless of whether the team got their target, the message was sent. "The U.S. of A is aware of who you are and what you are doing, and we are not afraid to come kill you face-to-face if it pleases us," he said. "Even to jihadists who long for death, that is a serious message that deserves respect."
According to NBC News, three boats carrying the SEAL team approached the Somali coast under the cover of darkness in the early hours of Saturday. After making landfall, the special forces made their way inside the compound, where an al-Shabab fighter stepped outside to have a cigarette. Pretending to not have noticed the SEALs, the fighter returned inside only to emerge moments later to open fire on the Americans. The SEAL team then found themselves in an intense firefight, with al-Shabab fighters opening up with machine guns and grenades.
As the firefight unfolded, the SEALs could see large numbers of women and children inside the compound intermingling with the fighters, according to the NBC report. The SEALs even spotted their target inside the house but realized they had no way of reaching him without incurring significant civilian casualties -- and exposing themselves to significant danger. According to NBC, once the firefight was underway, hundreds of fighters began streaming toward the compound.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel received briefings on the raid in Somalia two weeks ago. He was briefed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Vice-Chairman Adm. Sandy Winnefeld and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers. Hagel gave his approval to proceed with action at the time. The raid took place about the same time Hagel was returning home from a week-long trip to Asia. Pilots flying his plane took a short detour on the return to allow Hagel to conduct secure video teleconferences during the flight, both on the government shutdown and on Afghanistan. But it's also likely he was receiving briefings relating to the mission, as well as the other, unrelated one that took place at roughly the same time in Libya to capture Abu Anas al-Libi.
Administration officials are now describing the two raids as an example of Obama's revised, more constrained counterterror policy which holds that lethal force can only be used when there is a "near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed." Heavily criticized for making drone strikes its central tool against terror groups, the twin raids in Somalia and Libya are being cited as an example of the White House's willingness to not only capture terrorist leaders but to avoid incurring unnecessary civilian casualties. According to a senior administration official speaking to the Washington Post, the desire to avoid civilian casualties "accounts for the fact that ultimately [U.S. forces] disengaged."
Blake Midnight/US Navy via Getty Images