CAIRO -- Amererican commandos carried out raids on Saturday in two far-flung African countries in a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects. Members of a Navy SEAL team emerged before dawn from the Indian Ocean to attack a seaside villa in a Somali town known as a gathering point for militants, while American troops assisted by F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents seized a suspected leader of Al Qaeda on the streets of Tripoli, Libya.
In Tripoli, American forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas el-Liby, had a $5 million bounty on his head and his capture in broad daylight ended a 15-year manhunt.
The Somalia raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, in response to a massacre by the militant Somali group Shabab at a Nairobi shopping mall. The Navy SEAL team targeted a senior Shabab leader in the town of Baraawe and exchanged gunfire with militants in a predawn firefight.
The unidentified Shabab leader is believed to have been killed in the firefight, but the SEAL team was forced to withdraw before that could be confirmed, a senior American security official said.
Officials said the timing of the two raids was coincidental. But coming on the same day, they underscored the importance of counterterrorism operations in North Africa, where the breakdown of order in Libya since the ouster of the Qaddafi government in 2011 and the persistence of the Shabab in Somalia, which has lacked an effective central government for more than two decades, have helped spread violence and instability across the region.
The military may have pursued both targets simultaneously to avoid the possibility that news of one raid might spook into hiding the target of the other, or that a public backlash in one country might rattle the governments of the other into withdrawing its quiet cooperation. It was unclear if Washington was planning other raids as well.
But at a moment when President Obama’s popularity is flagging under the weight of his standoff with Congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for his reversal in Syria, the simultaneous attacks are bound to fuel accusations that the administration was eager for a showy victory.
Abu Anas, the Libyan Qaeda leader, was the bigger prize, and officials said Saturday night that he was alive in U.S. custody. While the details about his capture were sketchy, an American official said Saturday night that he appeared to have been taken peacefully and that “he is no longer in Libya.”
His capture was the latest grave blow to what remains of original Qaeda organization after a 12-year-old American campaign to capture or kills its leadership, including the killing two years ago of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.
Abu Anas is not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the Qaeda organization to like-minded militants in his native Libya.
A senior American official said the Libyan government was involved in the operation, but it was unclear in what capacity. An assistant to the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government said the government was unaware of any operation or Abu Anas’s abduction. Asked if American forces ever conduct raids inside Libya or collaborate with Libyan forces, Mehmoud Abu Bahia, assistant to defense minister, replied, “Absolutely not.”