By Sudarsan Raghavan and Colum Lynch
NAIROBI — The man whom U.S. Navy SEALs tried to seize in Somalia this past weekend is a senior operative of al-Shabab who has tried to expand the reach of the al-Qaeda-linked militia into Kenya, a critical U.S. ally in East Africa, according to analysts and officials.
The attempt to capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known as Ikrima, failed. Arriving in speedboats, the U.S. commandos engaged in a fierce gun battle with al-Shabab militants in the oceanside town of Barawe before retreating. Ikrima is believed to have survived the assault on his villa.
Ikrima is suspected of being an operations planner and recruiter for al-Shabab as well as a key figure in al-Hijra, a shadowy Kenyan group that has become al-Shabab’s wing inside Somalia’s East African neighbor.
A Kenyan citizen of Somali descent, Ikrima routinely travels between Kenya and Somalia, according to analysts. He has planned or carried out major attacks in both countries since 2011, according to Kenyan intelligence officials, U.N. security experts and regional analysts.
The growing threat posed by Islamist Kenyan militants is underscored by the role they played in the siege of a Nairobi shopping mall on Sept. 27, which left more than 60 people dead. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack. But Kenyan authorities say at least one of the five attackers killed was a Kenyan, as is a key suspect in the plot who is still alive. At least two of the dead assailants were believed to be members of al-Hijra, according to Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
It’s unclear whether Ikrima was connected to the mall attack, but analysts said it is plausible that he was one of the planners.
‘Blowback’ in East Africa
Al-Hijra’s rising profile is the latest sign of growing Islamic radicalization in East Africa, which had been considered one of the continent’s most stable regions. The group, mainly comprising ethnic Somalis and radical members of Kenya’s Muslim minority, was once known for small grenade attacks and drive-by shootings. But as the insurgency flared in Somalia in the past seven years, Kenyan and other East African extremists saw an opportunity to gain military training and fight a jihad — and then return home to use their skills.
“Partly what we are seeing now is blowback,” said Bryden, who heads Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank. “The people who spent time in Somalia are now coming back to use that experience in their country.”
There was a clear symbiosis between the groups in the two countries, he said.
“Ikrima represents an interesting crossover between al-Hijra and al-Shabab, as a Kenyan who can mingle among both the Somalis and the foreign fighters,” he said.
Last year, Ikrima topped a “most wanted” list of six people named by Kenyan authorities as militants suspected of recruiting Kenyans into al-Shabab. Some analysts ascribe even more importance to Ikrima. “Within al-Shabab, Ikrima was reportedly put in charge of Kenyan fighters, both ethnic Somali and non-ethnic Somali,” said J. Peter Pham, head of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.