By Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Ikrima, the militant targeted by U.S. special forces in a failed weekend raid, is a Somali-based thinker, planner and operator who has relentlessly plotted attacks on neighboring Kenya, intelligence services and analysts believe.
Kenyan and Western security agencies have identified Ikrima - the nom de guerre of Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar - as the link man for commanders of the al Shabaab Islamist group in Somalia with al Qaeda and Kenya's home-bred militants.
They have not established that Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin who spent several years in Norway, was involved in last month's attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67 people, for which al Shabaab has claimed responsibility.
A Somali official said Ikrima came from a clan in the semi-autonomous Puntland region and, echoing a regional diplomat, said he was connected to al Shabaab's Amniyat "secret service", an elite unit blamed for high profile strikes in Mogadishu.
Ikrima has plotted to attack Kenya's parliament, assassinate senior Kenyan politicians and hit U.N. offices in Nairobi, according to a Kenyan intelligence report leaked to media and also obtained by Reuters.
These plans failed, but so too did the U.S. Navy SEALS mission into Barawe, a militant stronghold on Somalia's southern coast. The special forces team pulled out after a gun battle without capturing Ikrima, named after a figure in Islamic history who first fought against Prophet Mohammad but then converted to become one of his most valiant commanders.
"He is a planner who is relentless in coming up with operations in Kenya," said Matt Bryden, a former coordinator of the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group. "He is one of the thinkers, planners, operational practitioners."
One defector from al Shabaab, who now works with Somali intelligence, described Ikrima as a well-connected man in his 30s able to mastermind operations across the border into Kenya.
In 2004, he travelled to Norway where he applied for asylum but left in 2008 before there was a decision on his application, Norway's TV2 reported. When in Norway, he lived in the Oslo area but visited Somalia, it said.
Norway's foreign ministry and the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration declined to comment.
Experts say he was mentored by al Qaeda operatives Fazul Mohammed and Saleh Nabhan, both now dead, who played roles in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi and a 2002 attack on an Israeli hotel and passenger jet in the coastal city of Mombasa.
Mohammed was seen as the lynchpin of al Qaeda in east Africa before Somali government forces killed him in 2011, while Nabhan died in Barawe in 2009 when U.S. special forces staged a helicopter-borne strike.
One U.S. official said Ikrima was known to Washington as a major al Shabaab plotter. Another called him an "external operations" planner but said the United States had no specific intelligence linking him to the September 21 Westgate mall attack.
The Somali official said he was a senior member of the special unit Amniyat and specifically head of operations in neighboring countries since at least 2012.
The diplomat said he had seen intelligence linking Ikrima to the bombing of a U.N. base in Mogadishu in June that killed 22 people, also linked to Amniyat.
Intelligence agencies have not revealed when Ikrima crossed from Kenya into Somalia. He appeared on U.N. investigators' radar around 2009 when he was believed to be part of a small circle of foreign fighters who won influence within al Shabaab.
Since then, he is believed to have continued to nurture links with al Hijra, a Kenyan group aligned to al Shabaab.
"He is known to have travelled back and forth between Somalia and Kenya. Some of the people he associated with were known to be operational leaders of al Hijra," said Bryden, who is now director of Sahan Research, a Horn of Africa-focused think tank in Nairobi.
Ikrima's relationship with al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, is unclear, although Godane is known to hide sometimes in Barawe where the U.S. forces landed on Saturday. An al Shabaab spokesman said no senior figure was present when they arrived.
Since taking control in 2008, Godane has purged al Shabaab of dissenters to his leadership and, experts say, has tried to rebrand the group as a global player in the al Qaeda franchise with the Westgate attack.
"It sits alongside al Shabaab's strategy of leveraging the old al Qaeda in east Africa network in order to stage their attacks abroad," said Natznet Tesfay at risk consultancy IHS.
That could have made Ikrima useful for Godane, although command structures in al Shabaab are opaque. One U.S. official said Ikrima may have operated independently of Godane.
J Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council think tank said Ikrima had a range of links including with another active group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
"Ikrima seems to have his own connections both to al Hijra and to al Qaeda, including what is left of the central leadership in Pakistan and AQAP in Yemen," he said.
In a security document leaked a week after the Westgate raid, Kenya's National Intelligence Service warned that suspected al Shabaab militants were in the country.
The NIS detailed plots masterminded by Ikrima to attack parliament, a restaurant popular with Somali officials, the U.N. headquarters in Nairobi and Kenyan politicians. The plans, the NIS said, had been sanctioned by al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Among Ikrima's accomplices, Kenyan intelligence said, was Samantha Lewthwaite, a British Muslim convert labeled the "White Widow" by the British press. Interpol have issued a "red alert" arrest warrant for her.
The report also linked him to Jermaine Grant, another Briton awaiting trial in Mombasa charged with planning an attack in Kenya in December.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; Editing by Edmund Blair and David Stamp)