U.S. Navy SEALs carried out a pre-dawn raid on the Somali seaside home of a leader of the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabab, U.S. officials said Saturday, an operation that suggests how worried Washington has become about the threat posed by an organization that recently launched an attack on a shopping mall in neighboring Kenya.
A U.S. official said the aim of the raid, which took place Friday, was to take a "high-value" al-Shabab militant into custody, but the militant was not seized.
"U.S. personnel took all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties and disengaged after inflicting some al-Shabab casualties," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a covert operation. "We are not in a position to identify those casualties."
The operation in the Somali town of Baraawe was in response to the Sept. 21 attack on the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi that killed at least 67 people and significantly raised the profile of al-Shabab, which took responsibility for the raid.
Al-Shabab fighters repelled the assault, which killed at least one of the group's fighters, a spokesman for the Somali organization told the Reuters news agency.
"Westerners in boats attacked our base at Baraawe beach," said Abdiasis Abu Musab. "No planes or helicopters took part in the fight."
Pentagon spokesman George Little would only say officials were not prepared to provide details of the raid, which he called "a counterterrorism operation against a known al-Shabab terrorist."
Western officials have grown alarmed that a group that was believed to have had limited ability to operate outside Somalia is now willing to call on supporters, including dual national Somalis, to carry out attacks abroad.
Officials did not say which leader was the target. The involvement of Navy SEALs in Saturday's raid appeared to mark the boldest U.S. strike in Somalia since a 2009 operation that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaida figure who was running the network's operations in Somalia.
Al-Shabab, which means "the youth" in Arabic, emerged in 2006 after invading Ethiopian troops drove out the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group that once controlled large swaths of Somalia.
Al-Shabab tapped into a widespread hatred of foreigners to build support across much of southern and central Somalia. But its popularity was short-lived because of the militia's strict implementation of Islamic law.
Last month's shopping mall attack came as U.S. intelligence had assessed al-Shabab to be weakening in Somalia in the face of an expanded multilateral African military force and a new civilian government.