U.S. Kills Bin Laden's Man in Somalia

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Intelcenter / AP

This video image shows a man whom analysts believe is Aden Hashi Ayro, the alleged head of al-Qaeda in Somalia, killed in a U.S. military airstrike.

The U.S. missile strike that killed Somalia's most notorious Islamist insurgent, Aden Hashi Ayro, has dealt a major blow to al-Qaeda's allies operating in East Africa. The deaths of Ayro and up to 10 others were announced early Thursday by spokesman for his al-Shabab militia, while the U.S. military confirmed it had struck what it called an al-Qaeda target in Somalia, but offered no details. Al-Shabab spokesmen said the men were killed early Thursday by a U.S. air strike on a house in Dusamareeb, a few hundred miles north of Mogadishu. "Infidel planes bombed Dhusamareb," Shabab spokesman Mukhtar Ali Robow told Reuters. "Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed." Other reports said the attack was not carried out by warplanes, but involved four Tomahawk cruise missiles. The strike marks the fifth such attack targeting Islamists in Somalia in the 16 months since the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in December 2006, which toppled the Islamist regime that had seized power in Mogadishu.

Ayro had been trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he later fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and the U.S. before returning to Somalia in 2003 to join — and quickly come to lead — a group of Somali and foreign radical militants that had been established by Osama bin Laden in remote swamps in the southeast of the country. It was this group that Washington blames for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and for the 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, as well as several other attempted atrocities.

U.S. military interest in Somalia dates back to the early years of the civil war that has raged since 1991 — on October 3, 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in the "Blackhawk Down" fiasco that befell an operation aimed at capturing a key Mogadishu warlord whose forces had imperiled a U.N. humanitarian mission. More recently, however, the focus has been on terrorism, and particularly on Ayro as he rose up the chain of command in al-Qaeda's East African operations. Although reports were sketchy, security sources suspected his involvement in a number of assassinations, including the death of four foreign aid workers in the semi-autonomous Somaliland region in 2003 and 2004, as well as the killing of BBC journalist Kate Peyton in Mogadishu in 2005.

Ayro was the target of a previous U.S. operation in January, 2007, involving thousands of U.S. personnel at sea off the Somali coast, as well as U.S. warplanes and special forces. He was believed to have been wounded in that attack, but resurfaced two months later to urge Somalis to fight the Ethiopian occupiers. Last November, he issued another proclamation, hailing bin Laden and calling on Somalis to target Ugandan peacekeepers and to pursue the Ethiopians to Addis Ababa, where he said they should behead their women and children.

The elimination of Ayro is an unqualified success, but it is also a narrow one. Before Ethiopian and U.S. operations began in 2006, Somalia was already one of the most unfortunate countries in the world, with no government, little infrastructure, and a propensity for periodic famine and floods. The humanitarian situation has since worsened to the point where the U.N. describes it as the worst on the struggling continent. And there is little dispute that the cause of the dramatic humanitarian decline has been the upsurge in violence in the wake of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion. There is also little arguing with the fact that Washington's failure to match its military involvement with humanitarian intervention has helped deepen anti-American sentiment across Somalia.