On Oct. 5, the same day the U.S. whisked leading al-Qaeda operative, Anas al-Liby, from his home in the Libyan capital to a suspected holding cell aboard a ship in the Mediterranean, it tried a similarly audacious operation in Somalia. Unfortunately for the Pentagon, the second raid, aimed at a suspected leader of al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group based in southern Somalia, did not succeed. The target of the strike, Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a Kenyan al-Shabab fighter better known by his nom de guerre Ikrima, managed to escape a covert, amphibian American assault on his hideout in the seaside town of Baraawe. A firefight between U.S. Navy SEALs and al-Shabab fighters led to at least two al-Shabab deaths—one a Sudanese national and another of Somali-Swedish extraction, according to Omar Jamal, the First Secretary of the Somali mission to the UN. The operation was celebrated by some in the capital Mogadishu. ”The raid has been a huge boost for the morale of our troops and will show al-Shabab that we are closely watching them and there is no place they can hide,” says Omar Osman, a spokesman of the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud.
(MORE: How the U.S. raid on Tripoli deepens Libya’s sense of crisis.)
But others in the same government are less cheery. “It is the leadership that matters, fighters are killed every day,” Jamal told TIME. “This botched raid will boost the morale and embolden al-Shabab to further their terror activities.” Al-Shabab has been in the international headlines following last month’s grisly terror attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, for which it claimed responsibility. Following the U.S. raid, Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute, the first think tank in Somalia, told TIME if no leaders were taken this would be “the icing on the cake for al-Shabab as they have now rebuffed the global super power and the same SEALs who took out Osama Bin Laden.” It’s a significant statement of their prowess, not least because, before the events of recent weeks, the group was considered to be a faction in retreat and disarray. “They will be using this as a victory and selling it everywhere,” Jabril Abdulle, co-director of the Centre for Research and Dialogue, told TIME from his office in Mogadishu. “It is great propaganda for them.”
Aware of the deepening ties between al-Qaeda and some of the radical Islamist militias operating in the Horn of Africa, the US has in recent years aided, funded and joined the fight against jihadists in the region. The US has actively trained local anti-terrorism battalions, including those within the Ethiopian and Somali armies and the latter’s elite force, known as the Alpha Group. The US has also supported AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping force fighting against al-Shabab in Somalia, which is largely responsible for ousting the group from Mogadishu and the southern port city of Kismayo in a 2011-2 military campaign. According to Kevin Kilcullen, a counter insurgency expert and author of Out of the Mountains, a study of urban guerrillas around the world, the US has employed the most effective strategy for tackling terrorism in the region. “It is much better to use local forces on the ground than to rely on US troops like we have ineffectively done in Afghanistan and other places,” Kilcullen told TIME. “Then, when AMISOM pushes al-Shabab out of the cities, the US can prepare for strikes on its leaders.”
The US is known to have drone bases in Djibouti and in Ethiopia, both allies in Washington’s war against radical Islamist militancy in the region. Somalia expert Matt Bryden, the former head of the UN Monitoring group in the country, says that “while the Westgate attack might have influenced the timing of the Baraawe raid and the precise target, the raid in itself is illustrative of a sustained U.S. commitment, not a change in posture of tactics.” But, Bryden says, the US and its allies need to contend with an evolving danger. It is believed the Kenyan terrorist group al-Hijira was involved in the Nairobi mall attack, which shows the terror threat has moved beyond one embattled extremist group in Somalia to “a transitional network of interlinked groups.” Bryden also argues that the botched raid will have little long lasting impact. ”If anything, it may lull Al-Shabab leaders into a sense of complacency, given that several of their key leaders have been targeted by Western military strikes,” he says, referring to a January French attack on al-Shabab that led to a French commando’s capture and execution.
(MORE: Terror in Nairobi—behind Kenya’s war with al-Shabab.)
Despite the concerns this raid will have only boosted al-Shabab’s morale, residents from Baraawe told this reporter, that al-Shabab are seriously shaken up by the attack. “It is obvious that the Islamists are terrified,” one man in his forties told TIME over the phone from Baraawe, speaking on condition of anonymity because the town is still controlled by al-Shabab fighters who would execute him for leaking information. “They cannot trust each other now,” he says. “They know they must have informants in their ranks and it’s driving them crazy.” He said that al-Shabab had arrested many people in his neighborhood and taken them away from their homes. Another resident told TIME that al-Shabab was leaving the city every night before dark and coming back in the day time. “They have also told fisherman not to fish after 4pm, and we have been told that if we don’t remove our satellite dishes they will be burned,” says the resident, explaining that al-Shabab fighters do not want the city’s residents to know the details of what happened during the U.S. raid. “It is clear the attack has had some seriously negative effects on them,” he says.
The raid comes at a time when residents in Somalia’s war-ravaged capital say that law and order in Mogadishu has reached its lowest point since the new Somalia Federal Government took over a year ago. Dysfunctional internal politics and a lack of resources have led to a deteriorating security situation. After being ousted from the city, al-Shabab has steadily ramped up its guerrilla strikes, heaping pressure on the fledgling government through small, hit-and-run attacks. “The city is always so tense at the moment,” one shopkeeper told TIME on Monday. “Recently we keep hearing rumors of a big attack; no one knows when or where but we are just waiting for it to happen.” Many analysts note that al-Shabab has lost a great deal of territory since 2011, as well as revenue and public support. But the government has little influence outside of Mogadishu and AMISOM offensive operations have slowed in recent months. “Al-Shabab is trying to regain the initiative and highlight the Somali government’s weaknesses,” says Bryden. “The government has a great deal of heavy lifting to do — especially on the political and security front — if it is to earn respect, support and legitimacy.”
Osman, the president’s spokesman, admits this readily: “We lack the capabilities and face difficulties so we welcome this raid and any other support from the international community against the terrorist forces in Somalia who pose a threat to international security,” he says. The incident at Baraawe, it seems, likely won’t be the last time U.S. special forces are sent in to action in the Horn of Africa.