U.S. Kills Top Qaeda Militant in Southern Somalia

Posted in Terrorism , Africa | 15-Sep-09 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman and Eric Sch| Source: New York Times

Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan

NAIROBI, Kenya - American commandos killed one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa in a daylight raid in southern Somalia on Monday, according to American and Somali officials, an indication of the Obama administration's willingness to use combat troops strategically against Al Qaeda's growing influence in the region.

Western intelligence agents have described the militant, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, as the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya responsible for the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002. Mr. Nabhan may have also played a role in the attacks on two American embassies in East Africa in 1998.

American military forces have been hunting him for years, and on Monday, around 1 p.m., villagers near the town of Baraawe said four military helicopters suddenly materialized over the horizon and shot at two trucks rumbling through the desert.

The trucks were carrying leaders of the Shabab, an Islamist extremist group fighting to overthrow Somalia's weak but internationally recognized government. The Shabab work hand-in-hand with foreign terrorists, according to Western and Somali agents, and in the past few months, as the battle for control of Somalia has intensified, the group seems to be drawing increasingly close to Al Qaeda.

American officials on Monday provided few details, but confirmed that Special Operations forces, operating from a nearby American warship, participated in the helicopter raid.

Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the American military used long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles and AC-130 gunships to carry out strikes against terrorism suspects in Somalia. One American adviser said the decision to use commandos and not long-range missiles in this case may reflect a shift by the Obama administration to go to greater lengths to avoid civilian deaths. In the past, many Somali villagers have been killed by American missiles.

But urgency was a major, if not overriding, factor as well. A senior American military official said the Special Operations forces, who had kept Mr. Nabhan under lengthy surveillance waiting for the right moment to strike, acted quickly after tracking Mr. Nabhan to a location away from civilians on Monday. "We have been watching him for a long, long time," said the military official.

Despite the danger of conducting the mission during the day, the strategy ensured that the troops could more accurately identify their target, attack it and confirm the deaths afterward. "This approach was, ‘Let's do it very quickly, very swiftly and confirm he's gone,' " the adviser said.

Mr. Nabhan played an increasingly important role as a senior instructor for new militant recruits, including some Americans, as well as a liaison to senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, the senior American adviser said.

"This is very significant because it takes away a person who's been a main conduit between the East Africa extremists and big Al Qaeda," said the adviser, who like several United States officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the mission.

The helicopters, with commandos firing .50-caliber machine guns and other automatic weapons, quickly disabled the trucks, according to villagers in the area, and several of the Shabab fighters tried to fire back. Shabab leaders said that six foreign fighters, including Mr. Nabhan, were quickly killed, along with three Somali Shabab. The helicopters landed, and the commandos inspected the wreckage and carried away the bodies of Mr. Nabhan and the other fighters for identification, a senior American military official said.

"We are very upset, very upset," said a Shabab official from the town of Merka, near where the raid happened. "This is a big loss for us."

Mr. Nabhan, who was thought to be around 30 years old and of Yemeni descent, was born in Mombasa, on Kenya's coast. American intelligence sources have said that he masterminded the suicide bombing of the Paradise hotel in Mombasa, which killed 11 Kenyans and 3 Israelis and wounded dozens of others.

The Paradise was a popular Israeli hangout, complete with a kosher restaurant and synagogue. That same day, Nov. 28, 2002, a group of assailants fired several missiles at an Israeli passenger jet at the Mombasa airport, narrowly missing it. Intelligence agents said Mr. Nabhan helped fire the missiles.

Mr. Nabhan was one of the handful of Qaeda terrorists hiding out in Somalia for years, taking advantage of the country's chaos to elude agents pursuing them.

Mr. Nabhan was believed to be a close associate of Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, Al Qaeda's East Africa operations chief, who helped organize the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed more than 200 people. American military forces have tried to kill Mr. Nabhan and Mr. Mohamed with airstrikes several times in recent years.

The Baraawe area, like much of southern Somalia, is controlled by the Shabab. There is increasing evidence that foreign jihadists, like Mr. Nabhan, are leading Somali Shabab and training them in suicide bombs.

American officials said Mr. Nabhan's death is likely to send other suspects scurrying for cover. When they resurface, there may be killings of those suspected of being informants, sowing further turmoil in their ranks, American officials said.

Jeffrey Gettleman reported from Nairobi and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Mohamed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.