A Kenyan intelligence official says that the "high-value terrorist leader" whose residence was targeted in a Navy SEAL raid Saturday was the senior al-Shabab leader Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, who used the alias Ikrima.
Ikrima is a Kenyan of Somali descent who boasts connections to both al-Shabab in Somalia and to a Kenyan jihadist group called al-Hijra. Kenyan authorities announced Friday that two of the four terrorists killed in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi were al-Hijra militants.
A U.S. government official later confirmed that Ikrima was in fact the target, says NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
Matt Bryden, director of Nairobi-based think tank Sahan Research, says that the Nairobi mall attack two weeks ago demonstrated a "dangerous convergence of al-Shabab, al-Hijra and the old al-Qaida East Africa networks," which may lay a foundation for future cooperative attacks in East Africa.
Bryden, former coordinator of the United Nation's Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, said Ikrima is "one of those rare figures" with links to all three jihadist networks, and as such, is a prime target for assassination or capture.
A leaked Kenyan intelligence report confirms that Ikrima was plotting "multiple attacks" inside Kenya, "sanctioned by al-Qaida" in Pakistan, and "involving financial and logistical support from South African operatives." The report continues:
"By December 2011, the planners had acquired safe houses in Nairobi & Mombasa, trained the executors, received explosives from Somalia and commenced assembly of and concealment of explosives."
According to the report, Ikrima's small "terror cell" included two British nationals: an explosives expert named Jermaine John Grant and the infamous White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite. (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has confirmed that a "British woman" may have been among the fighters at the Westgate Mall.)
Bryden said that although there is no evidence linking Ikrima to the mall attack, his "central position" between multiple jihadist networks makes it "quite possible he played a leadership role."
Pentagon officials said that the Navy SEAL raid was planned a week after the mall attack.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And stay with us while we go to NPR's Gregory Warner, as we said, for more on the target of that Somalia raid.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, alias Ikrima, is a Kenyan Somali known to wear a bushy moustache in the style of Saddam Hussein. But what makes Ikrima so dangerous is that he's a key link between East African jihadist groups inside and outside Somalia. Matt Bryden is former coordinator of the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, and he's director of a Nairobi-based think tank, Sahan Research.
MATT BRYDEN: Ikrima is one of the rare figures who seems to have been associated with all three of the jihadist networks operating in Somalia and East Africa.
WARNER: All three jihadist networks that apparently joined forces for the Westgate attack. Kenyan authorities this weekend identified four of the killed militants. One was from al-Shabab. One was a Sudanese sharpshooter trained by al-Qaida, and two were from a Kenyan-based jihadist group called al-Hijra.
BRYDEN: And so what we're seeing is a potentially very dangerous convergence of al-Shabab, al-Hijra and the old al-Qaida East Africa networks.
WARNER: A leaked Kenyan intelligence report confirms that some of Ikrima's planned attacks in Kenya were sanctioned by al-Qaida members in Pakistan and involved financial support from South African operatives. Ikrima's small terror cell even included two British nationals, including Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called white widow, who some witnesses said was among the militants at Westgate Mall. Bryden says there's still no firm evidence linking Ikrima or his terror cell to the Westgate attack, but...
BRYDEN: His central position makes it quite possible that he would have been involved in and possibly playing a leadership role in the Westgate attack.
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WARNER: The village market is more than a mile from Westgate Mall, but it's a mall that attracts similar clientele of Westerners and upscale Kenyans. This morning, workmen repair stone tiles, and light jazz plays in the food court near a bubbling fountain. It's here that I meet Oscar Githua, Kenya's only forensic psychologist.
OSCAR GITHUA: No. This is the first time I'm actually in the village market, partly because I've been so busy, anyway.
WARNER: What he's been busy with is setting up a psychological first aid response to treat survivors of Westgate. Kenya, of course, has weathered major acts of terror before, most notably the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing that killed hundreds of Kenyans. But Githua says psychologically, the two attacks were very different. In 1998, Kenyans felt like collateral damage in someone else's war.
GITHUA: Why are you bombing us? Why did you have to pick a target in the middle of town? We know it's American embassy you were bombing, but you actually ended up killing more of us than Americans. And what's going on? And people were very confused. And at the time, I do not think that Kenyans had that psychological feeling that they were part of a global war.
WARNER: Fifteen years later, Kenya has troops in southern Somalia fighting al-Shabab. Kenyan intelligence helped identify Ikrima's hideout in Baraawe. That was the target of the Navy SEAL raid. And Githua says a lot of Kenyans he speaks to now see Kenya as the frontline on a global war on terror. Poor border patrols and lax security makes Kenya an easier target.
GITHUA: In a place that's that porous, you can try to do a dry run of something, and then in most sophisticated economics, take time to build up and be able to attack.
WARNER: Even during the attack, before the militants of Westgate were firmly identified, Kenyan authorities were already saying that they were fighting global terrorism. Githua says Kenya sees itself as a strong counterterrorism partner to the United States, even if that means sometimes showing the rest of the world what global terror is going to look like in the future. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And NPR's Tom Bowman is still with us in our studios here in Washington. And, Tom, so much to follow up on, here. First, a reminder of how active the United States is in Africa, often out of view. But second, we have situations here where specific people were targeted, but they weren't hit with drones from the sky. People came in on the ground. Does that mark a shift for the United States?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, it's too early to say yet, Steve. Clearly, President Obama has said he wants to reduce the number of drone attacks. There's been international outrage over drones, civilian casualties, as well. But you have to remember, of course, this was a high-value target. And oftentimes, with a high-value target, you want to send a team in to grab that person, bring that person to justice, and also collect intelligence. It could be laptops, phones, papers, for example. So you want to be very careful that you don't destroy all that evidence in a drone strike.
INSKEEP: And you want to know that you got the guy, if you got the guy.
BOWMAN: Exactly, as we saw with Osama bin Laden.
INSKEEP: Yes. And in this case, we know they got one guy. They're not sure who they got in the other case.
BOWMAN: Right. We expect more information today on whether they got this guy in the raid.
INSKEEP: OK. Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Tom Bowman in our studios this morning. We also heard from NPR's Gregory Warner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.