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.”
Disclosure of the raid is likely to inflame anxieties among many Libyans about their national sovereignty, putting a new strain on the transitional government’s fragile authority. Many Libyans already accuse their current interim prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who previously lived in Geneva as part of the exiled opposition to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, of collaborating too closely with the West.
Abu Anas, 49, was born in Tripoli and joined Bin Laden’s organization as early as the early 1990s, when it was based in Sudan. He later moved to Britain, where he was granted political asylum as Libyan dissident. United States prosecutors in New York charged him in a 2000 indictment with helping to conduct “visual and photographic surveillance” of the United States Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and again in 1995. Prosecutors said in the indictment that Abu Anas had discussed with another senior Qaeda figure the idea of attacking an American target in retaliation for the United States peacekeeping operation in Somalia.
The raid in Somalia that targeted a leader of the Shabab was the most significant raid by American troops in that lawless country since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, near the same town four years ago.
The town, Baraawe, a small port south of Mogadishu, is known as a gathering place for the Shabab’s foreign fighters.
The military assault was “prompted by” the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi two weeks ago, a senior government official said. More than 60 people were killed when the Shabab militants overran the mall.
Witnesses in Baraawe described a firefight lasting over an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the raid, saying, “The attack was carried out by the American forces and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.”
A spokesman for the Shabab said that one of its fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault. American officials initially reported that they had seized the Shabab leader, but later backed off that account.
The F.B.I. had sent dozens of agents to Nairobi after the shopping mall siege to help Kenyan authorities with the investigation. United States officials fear that the Shabab could attempt a similar attack on American soil, perhaps employing Somali-American recruits.
A witness in Baraawe said the house was known as a place where senior foreign commanders stayed. He could not say whether they were there at the time of the attack, but he said that 12 well-trained Shabab fighters scheduled for a mission abroad were staying there at the time of the assault.One United States official said it was still unclear whether any Americans were involved in the Westgate siege, though many Kenyan officials said they now believed that there were only four attackers — far fewer than the 10 to 15 the government had previously reported.
A spokesman for the Kenyan military said Saturday that it had identified four of the attackers from surveillance footage as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and a man known only as Umayr.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo; Nicholas Kulish from Nairobi, Kenya; and Eric Schmitt from San Francisco. Reporting was contributed by Suliman Ali Zway and Carlotta Gall from Tripoli, Libya; Michael S. Schmidt and David E. Sanger from Washington; Josh Kron from Mombasa, Kenya; and Mohammed Ibrahim from Mogadishu, Somalia.