Reputed al-Qaida leader killed in U.S. strike

May 1, 2008 4:48:05 PM PDT
U.S. missiles destroyed the house of the man identified by the U.S. military as the top al-Qaida commander in Somalia, killing him and 10 others Thursday in a pre-dawn attack that analysts warned could torpedo peace talks. The killing of Aden Hashi Ayro comes amid escalating fighting and a spiraling humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa nation.

Islamic fighters have staged a series of attacks on towns in the months leading up to the U.N.-sponsored talks, scheduled to start May 10. The insurgents typically hold the towns for a few hours, free people from jails, then withdraw with captured weapons.

Somali government officials have said Ayro, who was believed to be in his 30s, trained in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and headed al-Qaida's cell in Somalia.

Few Somalis had heard of him before 2005, when Ayro desecrated a colonial Italian cemetery in Mogadishu, throwing hundreds of exhumed corpses into the sea. He then built a mosque on the site and began training fighters there - many of whom would be eager to take his place.

An International Crisis Group report linked Ayro to the murders of four foreign aid workers, a British journalist and Somali peace activist Abdulqadir Yahya.

The U.N.-backed talks, which are slated to be more inclusive than previous rounds, offered a slim hope of bringing together the disparate groups in the armed opposition, including some Islamists.

Thursday's attack has damaged the negotiations, said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"However much the Americans claim the war on terror is one thing and the peace process is another thing, it's not that clear-cut," Abdi said. "This will definitely have political repercussions."

Capt. Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, confirmed there was a U.S. airstrike early Thursday in the vicinity of the central Somali town of Dusamareeb. Another U.S. military spokesman, Bob Prucha, said the attack was against a "known al-Qaida target and militia leader in Somalia." Both declined to provide further details.

Another U.S. defense official, who sought anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed the strike targeted Ayro.

The U.S. missiles left a smoldering hole where Ayro's home had stood in Dusamareeb.

"The bodies were beyond recognition, some of them cut into pieces, and those wounded have been severely burned," resident Nur Farah told The Associated Press.

Local elder Ahmed Mumin Jama said the house was "totally destroyed," as were other houses nearby. Of the 11 dead, five bodies were retrieved from Ayro's house, he said, while the rest came from surrounding homes. Four people were being treated for wounds.

Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for the al-Shabab militia that Ayro led, called Ayro a martyr for the Islamist cause and vowed to carry out retaliatory attacks.

"Our brother martyr Aden Hashi, has received what he was looking for - death for the sake of Allah at the hands of the United States," he told The Associated Press.

He said another senior al-Shabab leader, Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, also was killed in the attack.

Repeated attempts to reach Somali government officials during the day were unsuccessful.

The United States has repeatedly accused Islamist Somalis of harboring international terrorists linked to al-Qaida, which it also blames for the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The U.S. has backed Somali warlords promising to fight the insurgents, including some accused of human rights abuses. But the strategy has deepened anti-American sentiment.

Ayro's al-Shabab is the armed wing of the Council of Islamic Courts movement that aims to impose Islamic law. It launches daily attacks on the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali government and its Ethiopian allies.

Neighboring Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in December 2006 that drove the courts movement members from the capital and parts of southern Somalia. But al-Shabab continues to wage an Iraq-style insurgency; the State Department considers it a terrorist organization.

Iise Ali Geedi of Somali University in Mogadishu said the killings will fuel suspicions the United States is using the talks as a fig leaf.

Abdi said the killings may not greatly impair the insurgency, because Ayro had taken a lesser role in the fighting after being wounded in a U.S. airstrike in January 2007.

"The fact that he was killed in his house in his hometown shows he was not actively engaged in the struggle," Abdi said, although it was impossible to say to what extent Ayro was involved in strategy and planning.

In any event, analysts said, the insurgency has recently become more decentralized. Several different leaders with different agendas support the insurgency, so the death of one or two al-Shabab commanders may not have a significant impact.

There are many different and shifting alliances in the insurgency. There is a faction, however, that is made up of warlords, politicians and businessmen that is willing to take part in the peace talks. The faction's primary concern is the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia.

But there are more extreme elements of the insurgency, especially among the al-Shabab militia, that has a more radical agenda and oppose the talks.

In the past year, the U.S. military has attacked several suspected extremists in Somalia - most recently in March, when the U.S. Navy fired at least one missile into a southern Somali town. The attack targeted Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan suspected in the 1998 embassy attacks.

U.S. warships pounded Somalia's remote coastal northeast in June 2007, targeting Islamic militants hours after a gunbattle with Somali government forces that left eight insurgents dead.

Somalia has been without an effective government for nearly 20 years. The United States sent troops in 1993 to back a massive U.N. relief operation for thousands of civilians left starving by the fighting.

But the U.S. attacked the home of a warlord, killing scores of civilians including women and children. Somali militiamen retaliated, bringing down two Black Hawk helicopters and killing 18 U.S. servicemen whose bodies were dragged through the streets. U.S. troops withdrew after that.

In the past year, fighting between insurgents and Ethiopian and government troops has killed thousands of people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya, and Jennifer N. Kay in Miami contributed to this report.