U.S. Strike in Somalia Targets Terror Suspects

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

NAIROBI, March 3 -- U.S. forces staged a missile strike early Monday on a house in southern Somalia where several Islamic leaders accused of terrorist activities were thought to be staying, U.S. officials and local residents said.

The attack wounded at least six people and sent hundreds of others fleeing the town of Dobley, about four miles from the Kenyan border, according to residents.

It was unclear whether the strike -- the fourth known U.S. attack inside Somalia since Ethiopian troops ousted an Islamic movement from the capital in December 2006 -- had killed any of its intended targets.

The previous strikes, including two carried out by AC-130 gunships that deliver a brutal rain of cannon shells, failed to hit any high-level terrorism suspects but inspired anti-American sentiment among Somalia's traditionally moderate Muslim population.

According to local news reports, the primary target of Monday's strike was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan who intelligence agencies believe played a major role in organizing the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Nabhan is one of three senior al-Qaeda associates whom U.S. authorities have long sought in East Africa. He and the two others -- Abu Talha al-Sudani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed -- are all believed to have been crossing in and out of Somalia for years.

Some critics have accused the Bush administration of focusing too narrowly on the hunt for the three at the expense of long-term nation-building in Somalia.

"This is not helping the image of America in Somalia," said Hussein Abdi, a lecturer at a university in the town of Kismaayo, referring to the latest strikes. "That's what we're seeing on the ground."

The missile attack comes at a time when the United States is more isolated than ever in its foreign policy toward Somalia, analysts said.

Since Ethiopian troops ousted the Islamic movement, the United States has steadfastly backed the transitional government of Abdullahi Yusuf, which has been battling a relentless insurgency in Mogadishu. The capital has turned into a crumbling ghost town as nearly half its population has fled.

Yusuf has allowed U.S. forces a free hand in Somalia while waging a brutal campaign that analysts say often targets his personal political and sometimes business enemies under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

With the humanitarian situation deteriorating, international pressure has mounted for a political compromise with a diverse opposition that includes the former Islamic leaders, clan leaders, intellectuals, businessmen and other Somalis now based in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

The opposition coalition has been struggling to contain extremist elements in their midst, analysts said, and the U.S. airstrikes have had the effect of undermining those efforts.

The issue has been a matter of vigorous debate among U.S. policymakers, some of whom believe the State Department should be pushing Yusuf harder for a compromise.

Matt Bryden, an independent Somalia analyst based in Nairobi, said the United States faces a choice. "Is it more interested in a political solution to stabilize Somalia, which will take longer to achieve its goals?" he said. "Or is the priority still to take a whack-a-mole approach to hunting for three al-Qaeda operatives?"

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, confirming the strike Monday, said the United States would not rule out further operations of this kind. "We will continue to seek out, identify, capture and if necessary kill terrorists where they plan their activities, carry out their operations or seek safe harbor," he said.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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