Destroying the compound probably would also have defeated a primary purpose of the mission: to capture, not kill, a Kenyan-born al-Shabab commander named Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima. He has long been on a U.S. “capture or kill” list, along with al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, known as Godane, and was considered the group’s primary planner of attacks outside Somalia.
As they provided more details of the aborted operation in the town of Barawe, current and former administration officials said it was designed within restrictive counterterrorism guidelines that President Obama signed in the spring. Under the 2001 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the guidelines say that lethal force can be used only when there is a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”
If civilians had not been present at the compound, a senior administration official said, “we might just as well have done a standoff strike,” hitting the site with missiles launched from piloted or unmanned aircraft. The desire to avoid hitting non-combatants, the official said, “accounts for the fact that ultimately [U.S. forces] disengaged” when they “met resistance.”
The guidelines also codify a long-stated but rarely implemented administration preference for capturing rather than killing terrorism targets.
Officials cited the Somalia operation, as well as the capture of an al-Qaeda figure in Tripoli, Libya, on the same day, as proof that the administration is not overly enamored with the relatively risk-free use of drones at the expense of detaining militants to glean intelligence.
“To people who had said we don’t undertake capture operations, here are two,” the senior official said.
The decision to launch the raid closely followed an al-Shabab attack last month on a Nairobi shopping mall frequented by Westerners. Public statements by the administration Monday also alleged that Ikrima was “closely associated” with the al-Qaeda planners of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But administration officials, speaking about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, said neither of those events was the justification for the attempted raid. The mall attack, they said, served only as further indication that al-Shabab has expanded its range and will soon directly target Americans in the region.