Al-Shabab fighters march on Feb. 17, 2011, during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia.
(Photo: Mohamed Sheikh Nor, AP file)
The U.S. raid that nabbed a senior al-Qaeda leader in Libya and a similar operation in Somalia are riskier than the White House's more common use of drones to target terrorists, but the operations allow U.S. authorities to gather valuable intelligence, security analysts say.
"The President has made clear our preference for capturing terrorist targets when possible ... in order to elicit as much valuable intelligence as we can and bring a dangerous terrorist to justice," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
In Libya, U.S. commandos on Saturday captured Abu Anas al-Libi, who was wanted in connection with the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Saturday attack came shortly after an unrelated raid in Somalia which was aimed at an al-Qaeda-linked militant group responsible for a deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall.
The results of the Somalia raid were less clear, as the Navy SEAL team that executed the raid pulled out before confirming whether the target of that operation was killed in the firefight.
The White House has commonly used drone strikes to target suspected terrorists, a tactic that poses far less risk to U.S. forces.
STORY: U.S. forces strike targets in Libya, Somalia
STORY: U.S. raids highlight terror threat in Africa
By contrast, raids are dangerous operations that involve inserting small teams secretly into often hostile territory and removing them quickly after the mission is accomplished.
In the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a team of Navy SEALs penetrated deep into Pakistani airspace, killing bin Laden and grabbing computers and other intelligence before Pakistan's military could respond.
Security analysts say it is unlikely the two raids signal a dramatic shift in policy, as there were specific conditions that provided rare opportunities. Both Libya and Somalia have weak central governments that lack the ability to quickly detect a raiding party.
Libya's fledgling government apparently was not even aware of the operation to capture al-Libi and on Sunday asked for "clarification" from the U.S. government.
Similarly, when Navy SEALs entered Somalia they were operating in a country where entire regions are outside the control of the Western-backed government.
The ability to launch an operation from the sea is also an advantage, analysts say. "They are risky, but less so when you have sea access and a weak foe," said Michael O'Hanlon, a security expert at the Brookings Institution.
The Pentagon has not released details of either raid. The raids may yield valuable intelligence.
"They increase the opportunity for intelligence collection and exploitation through the interrogation of captured individuals and the seizure of material at the raid site, from computers to notebooks and cell phones," said Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a think tank.
"Both missions appear to have been designed to capture terrorists, probably to acquire intelligence on this spreading danger," saidBruce Riedel, a former CIA official.
Riedel said the United States is concerned about the growth of al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout Africa.
The raid in Libya also allowed the United States to avoid risking civilian casualties, which are often tied to drone strikes, O'Hanlon said.
The U.S. government was not faced with a problem of what to do with al-Libi once he is captured. Unlike many other suspected militants, al-Libi has been indicted on U.S. charges and could be tried in U.S. courts. He was quickly spirited out of Libya, the Pentagon said.
U.S. forces have grown more experienced in the tactics of conducting raids, which require elaborate planning and lightning execution. U.S. commando units have years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, O'Hanlon said.
The two raids "demonstrate the unparalleled precision, global reach, and capabilities of the United States military," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Sunday.