U.S. Military Operations Against al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda—and Who Exactly is Ikrima?

What domestic legal authority did President Obama invoke to send a team of Navy SEALs into Somalia this weekend to capture or kill a member of al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization based in that country and allegedly responsible for the recent Westgate Mall attack in Kenya?

A key question is whether the government’s legal theory is a broad one—that al-Shabaab as such is one of the “associated forces” of al-Qaeda and thus all members are targetable—or a narrow one—that only “two-hatted” individuals who are members of both al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda are targetable?

First, let’s put to the side what, at this stage, seems like a red herring. Over the weekend, Bobby Chesney suggested that US officials might be claiming authority under Article II of the Constitution for operations against al-Shabaab in order to prevent regional destabilization. But, as Marty Lederman wrote yesterday in his updated post, “that would be an expansion of justification for Article II authority well beyond anything this or any other President (other than perhaps Truman and Bush 43) has previously relied [upon].”

Indeed, according to the Washington Post, U.S. officials have now stated that the President ordered the assault under the September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). According to the Post’s Ernesto Londoño, “U.S. officials said both operations were lawful under war powers that Congress granted the executive branch after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.”

If the Post’s report is accurate, the question is whether the US officials are invoking a broad theory of AUMF authority (al-Shabaab as a group is subject to the use of force) or a narrow theory (only those individuals who are also members of al-Qaeda are lawful targets).

Before this weekend, most indications had been that the narrower theory has been the basis for US attacks on specific members of al-Shabaab. If it turns out to be the broader model, a major new front in the post-9/11 US war footing has opened—and the administration has not informed the American public.

A hint that it might, indeed, be the broader of the two theories is based on one of the few official statements by the DOD over the weekend. The Pentagon Press Secretary confirmed that the US military operation was aimed at “a known al-Shabaab terrorist” (see also here). It is notable that this statement does not identify the target as a member of al-Qaeda.

The key, however, may turn on the identity and organizational affiliations of the specific target of the U.S. operation. So, who exactly was the target?

At first, media reports over the weekend suggested that the target was a leader of al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, alias Muktar Abdirahman “Godane,” which would not necessarily unsettle the narrower model. According to Daniel Klaidman’s terrific book, Kill or Capture, the administration already determined (in the fall of 2010) that Godane was targetable under the two-hatted theory following his sworn oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda and intelligence reports indicating he wanted to attack the West (pp. 221-22). Indeed, another al-Shabaab leader may have been spared at the time because he had not taken the same actions.

That said, more recent news stories (here, here, and here), primarily relying on statements by U.S. government officials, report that the target was not Godane after all. Instead, it was a lesser-known figure: Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, alias Ikrima. If Ikrima was the target, we may be left with more questions than answers.

But one of those answers might lead back to the same place: that Ikrima fits under the two-hatted model.

According to an expert quoted by NPR: “Ikrima is ‘one of those rare figures’ with links to all three jihadist networks [al-Shabaab, al-Hijra and the old al-Qaeda East Africa networks].” A workshop published by Canada’s Security Intelligence Service in May 2013 identified Ikrima as a member of AQEA (al-Qaeda in East Africa). In 2012, a local news report in Kenya described him as “an Al-Qaeda commander of foreign fighters in Somalia.” Even more important in terms of ties to al-Qaeda, in 2012, a local news outlet on Somalia stated that Ikrima “is reported to have worked under the late Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan.” Indeed, the former was, until his death, under indictment in the United States for his alleged involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, and the latter (Nabhan) may have also played a role in the embassy bombings (see also here).

Additionally, a recently leaked report produced by Kenya’s National Intelligence Service also describes Ikrima as an “Al-Shabaab operative,” but also states that he “coordinated” a December 2011 plot that was “sanctioned by Al-Qaeda core in Pakistan” and that “involved operatives trained by Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan” (p. 25). And, finally, to connect those dots, late Sunday, CNN reported that Ikrima “is associated with now-deceased al Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who played roles in the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi and the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, all in Kenya, [a senior Obama administration] official said.”

Indeed, the operation against Ikrima may bear a connection to this weekend’s other military operation: the U.S. capture of Abu Anas al-Liby, an alleged leader in the al-Qaeda conspiracy to bomb the East African embassies in 1998. As the news crystallizes over the coming days, we may find that the two cases are similarly tied to the 2001 AUMF and the narrow rationale for using force against al-Qaeda members. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.