Striking al-Qaeda in a Terrorist Breeding Ground

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Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan

The deadly drama of piracy, terrorism and humanitarian catastrophe that is Somalia took another twist on Sept. 14. A squad of U.S. special operations helicopter gunships, which were launched off a Navy vessel in the Indian Ocean, attacked and killed an alleged al-Qaeda leader in Somalia, U.S. officials told TIME. The dead man was believed to be Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a 28-year-old Kenyan wanted for attacks on a seaside hotel and an Israeli airliner in 2002 in Kenya. It was at least the sixth attack by U.S. forces in Somalia in less than three years and the latest in a series of U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda operatives in that country. According to news reports, Nabhan was killed when up to four U.S. helicopters fired on a convoy carrying suspected al-Qaeda targets in a village in southern Somalia on Monday. The reports said the helicopters attacked a vehicle, killing some people inside, then circled back and landed to pick up the bodies and any survivors for identification. Further clarification of Nabhan's death came on Sept. 15 from Abdi Fitah Shawey, deputy mayor for security affairs in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. "Our security-intelligence reports confirm that Nabhan was killed," Shawey told the Associated Press.

As much as it seemed to be a successful strike against terrorism, the attack was also a testament to Somalia's longevity as a refuge for Islamist militants. Conditions haven't changed in years. Somalia last had a government worthy of the name nearly two decades ago, in 1991. For most of the 1990s, like Afghanistan at the time, the country was torn apart by rival warlords. Like Afghanistan too, out of that chaos arose an army of radical Islamist warriors who were determined to bring strict religious law and order to the country, but who were also open to funding from and cooperation with al-Qaeda. The first shots in what became known as the war on terror were fired by Somalia-based militants when they blew up the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, killing 213 and 11 people, respectively. But Afghanistan, and later Pakistan, became the focus of the militant Islamic threat after al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden moved himself and his main base of operations there in 1996, after he was expelled from Sudan, eventually to perpetrate the attacks of 9/11.

But the Somali branch of al-Qaeda never retired. On Nov. 26, 2002, al-Qaeda killed 15 people when, according to the FBI, gunmen led by Nabhan attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and fired two missiles at an Israeli charter airliner in Kenyan airspace the same night (they missed). In 2003, staff at the new U.S. embassy in Nairobi evacuated for a week over reports that al-Qaeda wanted to level the building; there was also a never-executed plot to attack a U.S. military base in Djibouti in 2006. Bin Laden has released frequent video recordings urging Somali Islamists to take over the country.

Since late 2006, Somalia's chaos has been felt ever more keenly around the world. The Islamists, under the umbrella organization of a group called the Islamic Courts Union, briefly took control of Mogadishu in spring 2006. But radicals in their ranks declared a jihad on neighboring Ethiopia — a mixed Muslim and Christian country — and Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December of that year. U.S. special operations troops hitched a ride with that operation, using the opportunity to track down the U.S. embassy bombers and any other al-Qaeda operatives in the country. During that invasion, al-Qaeda bombmaker Tariq Abdullah, a.k.a. Abu Taha al-Sudani, was killed in a hit carried out by an Ethiopian military helicopter.

Despite that success, concerns over al-Qaeda in Africa have continued to grow as the group demonstrates an ever more muscular presence with a series of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, from Mauritania to Somaliland. The Somali connection is proving to be a particular worry with the regrouping of militants under the new unified command of a group called al-Shabaab and the discovery that scores of young Muslim men from the U.S., Britain and Australia are traveling to Somalia to receive weapons training in al-Shabaab camps. This year, three men from Minneapolis pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in the U.S., and at least three more have died in Somalia, including one whom authorities believe was the first American suicide bomber. Australian authorities last month revealed that they had uncovered an alleged plot by immigrants, including three Somalis, to carry out a suicide attack. And on Sept. 13, reports emerged in Britain of a group of ethnic Somalis also traveling to the Somali camps for training. It is these camps that may have prompted Monday's strikes. Nabhan was believed to be a central figure in the management of the camps, as was former al-Shabaab leader Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in March 2008.

With reporting by Mark Thompson / Washington