Qaeda Leader Reported Killed In Somalia

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
May 2, 2008 By Eric Schmitt and Jeffrey Gettleman
WASHINGTON — An American missile strike in Somalia apparently killed a militant long identified as one of Al Qaeda’s top operatives in East Africa on Thursday, but while Bush administration officials claimed success they also acknowledged facing an uphill battle to score lasting blows in their final months against the terrorist group around the world.
Political resistance from the new government in Pakistan, restrictions on pursuing militants across Afghanistan’s borders and the possibility of popular resentment in Somalia driving new recruits to militant Islam are the kinds of hurdles administration officials said could be left to the next president.
American officials portrayed the attack on the operative, Aden Hashi Ayro, as a product of intensified intelligence gathering in which they tracked him for weeks and made use of the free rein granted to the Pentagon in carrying out attacks in Somalia’s largely ungoverned spaces. Thursday’s attack was arguably the most successful American strike against Islamic militants outside of Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan since a deadly strike in Yemen in 2002, reflecting broader American concerns about terrorist havens in Africa.
Mr. Ayro was one of the most feared and notorious figures in Somalia, a short, wispy man believed to be in his 30s who had gone from lowly car washer to a top terrorist suspect blamed for a string of atrocities, including killing a BBC journalist, desecrating an Italian graveyard and planning suicide attacks all across Somalia. He was a military commander for the Shabab, an Islamist militia, which the American government recently classified as a terrorist group, saying it was linked to Al Qaeda.
The United States has failed to contain Al Qaeda in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and struggles even in Somalia, where the government gave the green light 16 months ago for American strikes on militants there.
But American attacks on terrorism suspects in the region have proved unreliable before, and human rights organizations have upbraided the United States for launching airstrikes in Somalia in the past year that ended up wounding or killing civilians.
Still, some administration officials said they wanted to make a mark on the issue in the waning months of the Bush presidency, pointing to Al Qaeda’s resurgence in the tribal areas of Pakistan; the rising number of cross-border attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan; and evidence that Al Qaeda and its offshoots are seeking to establish surer footholds in the Horn of Africa and other parts of the continent.
In January, American officials reached a quiet understanding with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to intensify strikes by pilotless aircraft against suspected terrorists. A few weeks later Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Qaeda leader, was killed in a missile attack in the tribal areas.
Now administration officials contend that Pakistan’s new government may throw a wrench into their more aggressive strategy to hunt Al Qaeda and the Taliban by negotiating with the militants. “We’re growing impatient,” said one administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Even within Somalia, there was debate over whether Mr. Ayro’s death would be a turning point toward peace or fuel for more resistance.
Government officials have been trying to strike a truce with more moderate elements of Somalia’s Islamist movement and argued that with a violent leader like Mr. Ayro gone, moderates would be more receptive.
“This will definitely weaken the Shabab,” said Mohamed Aden, consul for Somalia’s embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. “This will help with reconciliation. You can’t imagine how many Somalis are saying, ‘Yes, this is the one.’ The reaction is so good.”
But while many Somalis disagreed with Mr. Ayro’s tactics, he was also perceived as a freedom fighter resisting an unpopular government backed by outsiders, including Ethiopia and the United States. Several Somalia scholars said Mr. Ayro’s killing could lead to a dangerous blowback for Americans in East Africa, a region that had already been hit by several Qaeda attacks.
“This will become a major recruiting tool,” said one American official not authorized to speak publicly. “These guys will now feel the Americans are their enemy and you’re going to see more attacks against Americans in the region and more foreign fighters flooding in.”
Maj. Sherri Reed, a spokeswoman for the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said the military had attacked “a known Al Qaeda target” in the central Somali town of Dusa Marreb on Thursday, without giving more details of the predawn strike. She said there was no evidence to suggest that any civilians had been wounded or killed.
An American military official in Washington, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation, said at least four Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from a Navy ship or submarine off the Somali coast had slammed into a small compound of single-story buildings in Dusa Marreb, a well-known hide-out for Mr. Ayro and his associates. The military official and two American intelligence officials said all indications were that Mr. Ayro was killed, along with several top lieutenants, but the attack was still being assessed.
“This was in the works for some time,” said the official. He said American intelligence agents had been tracking Mr. Ayro for weeks through a combination of communications intercepts, satellite imagery and other intelligence.
Around 3 a.m. Thursday, residents of Dusa Marreb were jolted out of bed by several large explosions. According to witnesses and a spokesman for the Shabab, more than 10 people were killed, including Mr. Ayro, Mr. Ayro’s brother and several other high-ranking Shabab commanders.
Some witnesses said that as many as 30 people were dead and that residents were counting skulls to determine the number.
“Infidel planes bombed Dusa Marreb,” a Shabab spokesman, Mukhtar Ali Robow, told Reuters. “Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed.”
The American official said: “For the Horn of Africa, this is pretty significant. He’s certainly considered a leader in Al Qaeda’s effort there. This can be chalked up as a success.”
Dusa Marreb is a stronghold of the Ayr clan, which Mr. Ayro belonged to. In recent weeks, residents said, Islamist fighters had moved in, part of their strategy to wrest back control from the Transitional Federal Government, which officially leads Somalia but wields little power.
In 2006 Mr. Ayro was a militia commander in an Islamist movement that briefly ruled Somalia. That rule ended that December when Ethiopian troops, backed by American intelligence and air power, ousted the Islamists.
Since then, American forces have launched several airstrikes inside Somalia, including one in January 2007 that was thought to have wounded Mr. Ayro. American officials have accused Mr. Ayro of protecting wanted Qaeda members, including some of the men thought to have planned the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The details of Mr. Ayro’s life story are few. According to Somali intelligence agents, he dropped out of school at a young age to wash cars and join one of the street-gang-type militias that were fighting for control of Somalia in the early 1990s after the central government collapsed.
He became friends with a leader of his clan, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who arranged for him to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against American forces in 2001. He then returned to Mogadishu and trained fellow fighters in explosives, according to the International Crisis Group, a research organization that specializes in analyzing conflicts.
In January 2005 Mr. Ayro desecrated the graves of dozens of Italians who had been buried in Mogadishu decades ago, when Somalia was an Italian colony. He was essentially disowned by his clan after that. But his militant activities only increased, and in February 2005 he was blamed for killing a BBC news producer outside her hotel in Mogadishu.
In Dusa Marreb, clan elders rejected Mr. Ayro, said Mohammed Uluso, a leader of the Ayr clan, because the elders “didn’t want to mix up their legitimate goals with something suspicious.” That might have been part of Mr. Ayro’s undoing, because Somali officials said that people in Dusa Marreb provided American forces with up-to-the-minute intelligence on his movements.
Mr. Uluso said the Shabab would continue to be a potent resistance force because many young Somalis saw the group as a “heroic cause” in terms of standing up to the Americans. (Shabab is the Arabic word for youth.)
“The Shabab won’t just disappear,” Mr. Uluso said. “But now that the hunt for Ayro is over, at least people will get their freedom back. So many people were hurt and oppressed in the effort to get him.”
Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Jeffrey Gettleman from Nairobi, Kenya.