U.S. Airstrike Kills Somali Accused of Links to Al-Qaeda

[Map: Air Strike, Somalia]
By Stephanie McCrummen and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 2, 2008

NAIROBI, May 1 -- A top insurgent leader in Somalia whom U.S. officials have accused of having ties to al-Qaeda was killed in a U.S. airstrike early Thursday, according to the Islamist group he led.

The attack in the town of Dusa Marreb in central Somalia leveled a house belonging to the reclusive leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, who was inside at the time with at least one of his top commanders, according to his followers.

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command confirmed that the United States had attacked "a known al-Qaeda operative and militia leader" in the vicinity of Dusa Marreb, about 300 miles northeast of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

A U.S. military official said five Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched against the village from a U.S. naval vessel. The official would not confirm the type of vessel or its home base but said ships from the Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, "routinely operate in the Horn of Africa area."

The group that Ayro headed issued a statement calling him a "martyr."

"We are here informing the Enemy of God" that Ayro's "trained and educated colleagues are currently in operation. They are committed to the continuation of the Holy War," said Mukhtar Robow, a spokesman for al-Shabab, the military arm of the Islamic Courts movement that has gained ground recently against Somalia's weak transitional government and the Ethiopian troops backing it.

The United States recently designated al-Shabab a terrorist organization.

Reports varied on the number of people killed. Abdi Warsame, a headmaster in the area, said he counted 16 bodies strewn around a crater where Ayro's house used to be, on the western outskirts of town.

Over the past year, the United States has carried out five known attacks in Somalia that officials have said were aimed at al-Qaeda operatives. The attacks killed civilians and insurgents fighting what they consider the illegal occupation of their country by Ethiopian troops.

Some analysts say the United States has exaggerated the insurgents' ties to al-Qaeda and are taking sides in a messy civil war at the cost of rising anti-American sentiment in a moderate Muslim country.

Ayro's popularity was built partly on that sentiment.

In recent years, Ayro, believed to be in his late 30s, had become a cultlike figure to the young Somali men who followed him. Like them, he grew up in the checkpoint-and-shakedown culture of 1990s Mogadishu, when predatory warlords brutally ruled the streets. In those years, he became a protege of a key Islamist leader.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company