By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007 11:40 PM
A U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship attacked suspected al-Qaeda members in southern Somalia on Sunday, and U.S. sources said the operation may have hit a senior terrorist figure.
The strike took place near the Kenyan border, according to a senior officer at the Pentagon. Other sources said it was launched at night from the U.S. military facility in neighboring Djibouti. It was based on joint military-CIA intelligence and on information provided by Ethiopian and Kenyan military forces operating in the border area.
It was the first acknowledged U.S. military action inside Somalia since 1994, when President Bill Clinton withdrew U.S. troops after a failed operation in Mogadishu that led to the deaths of 18 Army Rangers and Delta Force special operations soldiers.
Sources said last night that initial reports indicated the attack had been successful, although information was still scanty.
"You had some figures on the move in a relatively unpopulated part of the country," said one source confirming the attack, who, like several others, would discuss the operation only on the condition of anonymity. "It was a confluence of information and circumstances," he said. The attack was first reported by CBS News.
One target of the strike, sources said, was Abu Talha al-Sudani, a Sudanese who is married to a Somali woman and has lived in Somalia since 1993 -- the year of the attack against U.S. troops that was chronicled in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." In a 2001 U.S. court case against Osama bin Laden, Sudani was described by a leading witness as an explosives expert who was close to the al-Qaeda leader.
More recently, Sudani was identified by U.S. intelligence as a close associate of Gouled Hassan Dourad, head of a Mogadishu-based network that operated in support of al-Qaeda in Somalia. Dourad is one of 14 "high-value" prisoners transferred last September from CIA "black sites" to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence then disclosed that Dourad "worked for the East African al-Qaeda cell led by . . . al-Sudani" and carried out at least one mission for him, related to a plan to bomb the U.S. military base in Djibouti.
Others have identified Sudani as the financier for Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, believed responsible for the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. All are among the senior al-Qaeda operatives the Bush administration has charged were sheltered by Somalian Islamic fundamentalists controlling Mogadishu, the country's capital. They are believed to have fled late last month when Ethiopian troops drove the fundamentalists out of the capital and toward the Kenyan border.
The Bush administration has been leading an international diplomatic effort to stabilize Somalia, including organizing an African peacekeeping force. It has called on leaders of Somalia's new transitional government to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with moderate members of the Islamic leadership who are not seen as terrorist facilitators and who are supported by a significant segment of Somali clans.
Neither effort has met with much success. African countries have been reluctant to offer troops and the new Somalian leaders have resisted negotiations.
Sources would not confirm that U.S. forces are operating on the ground along the border between Somalia and Kenya, although one emphasized that "we are working very, very closely" with Kenyan forces.
The aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower was deployed in the Indian Ocean to provide air cover for the operation and, if needed, to evacuate downed airmen and other casualties. It joined several Navy ships from the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, that have been patrolling the area to prevent al-Qaeda members from fleeing Somalia by sea, a Navy spokesman said. Approximately 1,500 U.S. personnel, including Special Operations forces, are assigned to the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
The AC-130 gunship is a heavily armed aircraft, with four cannons and a six-barrel Gatling gun capable of firing 1,800 rounds a minute. But its most striking weapon is a computer-operated 105mm howitzer that juts sideways from the middle of the aircraft. An offensive behemoth that is relatively defenseless against counterattack, it is flown only at night.
The Bush administration has long claimed the right to launch discrete military attacks in other countries when terrorist targets have been identified.
A strike by a U.S. Predator drone was ordered by the CIA last January in response to intelligence placing Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-ranking al-Qaeda leader and bin Laden's chief deputy, at a compound near the Afghanistan border in Pakistan. The attack killed a reported 17 people, including six women and six children, but not Zawahiri, who apparently was not at the compound at the time.
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks and Robin Wright and staff researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.