U.S. Airstrike Kills Top Qaeda Agent in Somalia
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: May 2, 2008
NAIROBI, Kenya ‚ÄĒ Aden Hashi Ayro, one of Al Qaeda‚Äôs top agents in East Africa and the leader of the Islamist comeback in Somalia, was killed Thursday morning by an American airstrike, according to American and Somali officials.
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 top terrorist suspect blamed for a string of atrocities, including ripping up an Italian graveyard, killing a female BBC journalist and planning suicide attacks all across Somalia.
He was a military commander for the Shebab, an Islamist militia which the American government recently classified as a terrorist group.
Somalia officials said his death could be a key turning point in defeating the Islamists, who have seized several towns in recent weeks, and in bringing peace to the country.
‚ÄúThis will definitely weaken the Shebab,‚ÄĚ said Mohamed Aden, consul for Somalia‚Äôs embassy in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, who confirmed the developments. ‚ÄúThis will help with reconciliation. You can‚Äôt imagine how many Somalis are saying, ‚ÄėYes, this is the one.‚Äô The reaction is so good.‚ÄĚ
Maj. Sherri Reed, a spokeswoman for the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., confirmed that the military had attacked "a known Al Qaeda target" in the central Somalia town of Dhusamareb, but declined to give more details of the pre-dawn strike.
But an American military official in Washington, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation, said that 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 Dhusamareb. Human rights organizations have upbraided the American government for launching air strikes against terrorist suspects inside Somalia and killing civilians instead, which has happened several times in the past year. But this time the missiles seemed to find their mark.
Around 3 a.m. Thursday morning, four missiles slammed into a home in Dhusamareb, according to residents, Somali officials and a spokesman for the Shebab. The home was being used by Mr. Ayro and his top lieutenants as a hideout, Somali officials said. More than 10 people were killed, including Mr. Ayro, Mr. Ayro‚Äôs brother and several other high-ranking Shebab commanders.
‚ÄúInfidel planes bombed Dhusamareb," Shabab spokesman Mukhtar Ali Robow told Reuters. "Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed."
The American official confirmed the Somali account that Mr. Ayro and more than 10 other people were likely killed in the attack, including Mr. Ayro‚Äôs brother.
This official said American intelligence and military officials had been tracking Mr. Ayro and his lieutenants for weeks, through a combination of communications intercepts, satellite imagery and other intelligence on the ground.
‚ÄúThis was in the works for some time,‚ÄĚ the official said. As to Mr. Ayro‚Äôs significance, the official said: "For the Horn of Africa, this is pretty significant. He‚Äôs certainly considered a leader in Al Qaeda‚Äôs effort there. This can be chalked up as a success."
Dhusamareb, a town of about 100,000 people along one of the few highways in Somalia, is a stronghold of the Ayr clan, which Mr. Ayro belongs to. In the past few weeks, residents said, Islamist fighters had moved into the town, part of their strategy to wrest back control from the Transitional Federal Government, which is officially in charge of Somalia but wields little power on the ground.
In 2006, Mr. Ayro was part of the Islamist movement that briefly ruled Somalia. That ended in December 2006 when Ethiopian troops, backed up by American intelligence and air power, ousted the Islamists.
Since then, American forces have launched several airstrikes inside Somalia, including one in January 2007 which was thought to have wounded Mr. Ayro.
In the past attacks, cruise missiles were often used, launched from American war ships in the Indian Ocean.
American officials have said they have been given permission by Somalia‚Äôs government to attack terrorist suspects on Somali soil. American officials have accused Mr. Ayro of protecting wanted Qaeda members, including some of the men thought to have planned the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Mr. Ayro‚Äôs life story is a bit sketchy. 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 was 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 think-tank that specializes in analyzing conflicts.
In 2005, Mr. Ayro desecrated the graves of dozens of Italians who had been buried in Mogadishu decades ago, when Somalia was an Italian colony. Mr. Ayro was essentially disowned by his clan after that. But his militant activities only increased, and in February 2005 he was blamed for gunning down a BBC news producer outside her hotel in Mogadishu.
Mr. Ayro had recently gone to Dhusamareb with a band of his fighters to help set up a local administration. But clan elders rejected him, said Mohammed Uluso, a leader of the Ayr clan, because the elders ‚Äúdidn‚Äôt want to mix up their legitimate goals with something suspicious.‚ÄĚ That might have been part of Mr. Ayro‚Äôs undoing, because Somali officials said that people in Dhusamareb provided American forces with up-to-the-minute intelligence on Mr. Ayro‚Äôs movements.
Mr. Uluso said Mr. Ayro was small and thin and looked like ‚Äúa high school student, not this big guy the Americans were after.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Uluso said he thinks the Shebab will continue even after Mr. Ayro‚Äôs death because many young Somalis see the Shebab as a ‚Äúheroic cause‚ÄĚ in terms of standing up to the Americans. (Shebab is the Arabic word for youth.)
‚ÄúThe Shebab won‚Äôt just disappear,‚ÄĚ Mr. Uluso said. ‚ÄúBut 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.‚ÄĚ
Jeffrey Gettleman reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington.
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