According to the BBC report, the target of the raid was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a suspected senior al-Qaeda commander in East Africa. The Kenyan-born Islamist extremist is believed to have been involved in the 2002 attack on a resort hotel outside Mombasa that killed 15 people and an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner that had just departed that coastal city's airport. He may also have been involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) that resulted in over 250 deaths.
Nabhan was reported killed in Monday's incident.
Speaking to the BBC, Andre le Sage of the African Centre at the National Defense University in Washington called Nabhan an important figure in al-Qaeda's East African operations, one who may have liaised with senior commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He most certainly was involved with the Somali group al-Shabaab, reportedly helping the group manage its training camps for foreign fighter. And while le Sage says that Nabhan's death will certainly have an impact on al-Qaeda's capabilities in the region, he adds that al-Shabaab itself may be somewhat less affected. Like pirate gangs, the Islamist group may be able to find any number of willing individuals to fill the gap created by Nabhan's demise.
In the wake of the attack, the BBC also reports that some Somalis are worried about the potential that such actions will push local people into supporting extremist groups like al-Shabaab. An anonymous al-Shabaab commander also told the BBC that they would retaliate against American interests, saying, "They will taste the bitterness of our response."
Monday's attack underscores the increasing concern among many nations that the continued growth of Islamic extremist groups within Somalia needs to be more effectively addressed. The endemic lawlessness in Somalia not only allows militia gangs and pirates to operate with near impunity, but also provides the perfect base from which terror cells can organize and train themselves. As the number of foreign fighters has increased in the area and al-Shabaab and its allies consolidate their control over the southern quarter of Somalia - including the fertile Shabelle region - the situation has become much more serious. It is no longer a case of extremists having a mere toehold in the Horn of Africa; they now control an area the size of Holland and Belgium put together.
Previous reports had Somali eyewitnesses describing the raiders as being French military forces. Whether or not French forces were involved in the operation alongside American troops is not known at this time, though both countries maintain elements in the region, both at sea and ashore (in Djibouti).
Photos of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, including retouched versions, from the FBI's wanted list