MOGADISHU, Somalia, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- The U.S. Navy SEAL raid into violence-wracked Somalia to rescue two Western hostages is widely seen as a harbinger of more wide-ranging covert U.S. operations against terrorists and their allies.
Wednesday's operation by helicopter-borne commandos of SEAL Team 6, the same unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout in May, underlined U.S. President Barack Obama's new focus on Special Forces as the cutting edge of U.S. military power in the global battle against Islamist militants.
The SEALs parachuted into Somalia near the town of Adado during the night raid, then moved in on foot to a pirate camp where the hostages were being held. They took the captors by surprise as they slept after an evening spent chewing qat leaves, a mild narcotic.
Nine of the kidnappers were killed and the two captives -- Jessica Buchanan, a 32-year-old American; and Pula Hagen Thisted, a 60-year-old Dane -- were freed unharmed.
The pair, who worked for a demining unit of the Danish Refugee Council, was kidnapped in October.
The SEALs and the freed captives were picked up by helicopter and flown to a U.S. military base at Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion facility in neighboring Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden.
Some reports said the U.S. commandos seized three of the kidnap gang and took them to Camp Lemonnier for interrogation.
Camp Lemonnier is the only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2001 it has hosted the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. That 1,500-strong counter-terrorism force, with the CIA, has played a key role in fighting al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist group that has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida.
The Somalis killed by SEAL Team 6 in Wednesday's operation weren't members of al-Shabaab. But they were considered legitimate targets for U.S. forces since they were holding an American hostage.
In recent years, U.S. forces have killed several senior leaders of al-Shabaab in air or missile strikes. Wednesday's operation was one of the rare occasions in which U.S. troops actually went in on the ground.
Under Obama's strategy of spearheading the war against terror with small, nimble units drawn from the Joint Special Operations Command, it's likely that there will be more against jihadist organizations in Somalia; Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden; and possibly other parts of Africa as well.
On Sunday, a top al-Shabaab official was killed in a salvo of missiles fired from a U.S. Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, probably launched from Djibouti in what was the first U.S. drone strike in Somalia since 2009.
Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-born British citizen who fought in Afghanistan before going to Somalia in 2006, helped oversee recruitment, training and tactics for al-Shabaab.
He was a close associate of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaida's commander in East Africa who masterminded the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mohammed, one of the most wanted figures in al-Qaida, was killed by a Somali government soldier at a roadblock in Mogadishu, Somalia's war-battered capital, June 7, 2009.
On Sept. 14, 2009, Navy SEALs killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, another close associate of Mohammed, in a helicopter-borne raid on his motorcade south of Mogadishu.
It's understood that tactical intelligence on Nabhan, also wanted for the 1998 embassy bombings and other jihadist attacks, was provided by a CIA paramilitary team embedded with U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces operating in Somalia at the time.
Fifteen months earlier, on May 1, 2008, top al-Shabaab commander Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a U.S. airstrike on his home in Dhuusamareeb with another chief, Sheik Muhyadin Omar.
Obama ordered an intensification of covert operations against jihadist groups in Somalia and Yemen in July 2011.
That's part of his wider drive to go after terrorist organizations with pinpoint Special Forces strikes rather than more conventional, and costly, forces.
The reason the Americans have focused on Somalia and Yemen is that they say the jihadist group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been seeking to forge an operational alliance with al-Shabaab and launch attacks on the continental United States.
Camp Lemonnier, from where the CIA has mounted UAV attacks against AQAP, is likely to be the primary base for stepped-up operations against al-Qaida.