(CNSNews.com) – The reported death of a leading African al-Qaeda terrorist is another success in a long-running campaign to capture or kill top suspects in deadly attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets in East Africa.
Saleh Ali Saleh al-Nabhan, a Kenyan Muslim, reportedly was killed in a U.S. commando raid in southern Somalia on Monday. He was one of four men named by the State Department in January 2007 as senior al-Qaeda operatives based in Somalia.
All four have been targeted a number of times in past U.S. air strikes in Somalia, and one of them is believed to have been killed in 2007.
Essentially the most wanted terrorists in Africa, the four men were involved in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel and attempted downing of an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002.
Eyewitness accounts cited by Radio Garowe, based in autonomous Puntland, said several helicopters were involved in Monday’s daylight assault in the Barawe district. After a missile was fired at a vehicle, a helicopter had landed and commandos opened fire.
Witnesses reported seeing four bodies. U.S. officials told media organizations that the troops had retrieved the bodies.
The other men named in 2007 were Abu Talha al-Sudani (aka Tariq Abdullah), a Sudanese implicated in the embassy and Mombasa attacks; and Issa Osman Issa and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, both involved in the Mombasa events.
Sudani was reported to have died when the U.S. military attacked a convoy of vehicles near the Somalia-Kenya border in January 2007. There was no U.S. confirmation, but in a mid-2008 video recording, Nabhan announced that Sudani, whom he described as “the emir of the mujahideen in Somalia,” had the previous year been “martyred … while he was leading one of the mujahideen brigades. This is the first time that we have made that fact public.”
The recording was cited in a May 2009 report on Somali by the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism watchdog.
Issa’s status is uncertain. Kenyan media in March 2006 cited police sources as saying he had been killed while assembling a bomb in Mogadishu. However, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last November designated Issa under Executive Order 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing them with support. In the designation announcement it linked Issa to terrorist incidents in Somalia in April 2007.
The State Department in its most recent global terrorism report named Nabhan and Fazul as posing “the most serious threat to Kenya.” It said they were being sheltered by al-Shabaab, the terrorist group fighting the fragile transitional government in neighboring Somalia.
More than 200 people, including 12 U.S. citizens, died in the near-simultaneous August 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.
In the 2002 attacks, three suicide attackers bombed the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing three Israelis – a 60-year-old tour guide and two brothers, aged 15 and 12 – and nine Kenyans, traditional dancers who were welcoming a group of newly-arrived Israeli tourists. Kenyan police say Nabhan provided the vehicle used in the bombing.
At almost the same time as the bombing, terrorists fired two surface-to-air missiles in an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli chartered airliner shortly after takeoff from Mombasa airport. The Tel Aviv-bound Boeing 757 was carrying 261 passengers.
Nabhan and Issa were the terrorists who fired the missiles, according to investigators.
More recently, Nabhan evidently played a role in recruiting and training jihadis in Somalia. The NEFA Foundation report says al-Shabaab last year released propaganda videos featuring Nabhan giving combat training to foreign recruits.
In one of the recordings, Nabhan offered greetings to “the courageous commander and my honorable leader, Sheikh Osama bin Laden” and played down the significance of a jihadi being killed:
“They don’t realize that we are longing for death; the death of the martyrs and their glories bear witness that we are a nation which does not fear demise or dread death,” he said. “So whether you bomb a commander or kill another, the flame of the jihad will only increase …”
Nabhan, aged about 30, was targeted by the U.S. military in March 2008, in a town called Dhobley near Somalia’s border with Kenya, but survived the air strike.
His reported death this week is the biggest counter terror success in Somalia since a U.S. air strike in the Dusamareb district in May 2008 killed Aden Ayrow, an al-Shabaab military commander.
Nabhan’s death leaves Fazul as the leading al-Qaeda suspect at large in the region – along with Issa, if he is still alive.
The Comoros-born Fazul, believed to be about 37, has had several close shaves in the past: Just months before the Mombasa attacks, he was arrested in Nairobi for using stolen credit cards, but managed to escape.
He was arrested again in Mombasa in August 2003, along with another suspect. En route to the police station the second man detonated a hand grenade, enabling Fazul to flee in the ensuing confusion.
He also managed to survive a U.S. air strike in southern Somalia in January 2007 and again in June 2007 when a U.S. warship fired deck guns at suspects in the Puntland area along Somalia’s northern coast, according to published reports.
With long and porous borders, often inefficient policing and large Muslim communities, the East African region has long been used by al-Qaeda both as a haven and a target, a situation facilitated by bin Laden’s presence in Sudan in the 1990s and by the anarchy that has wracked Somalia since 1991.
According to evidence heard during a 2001 trial in New York of four men charged in connection with the Nairobi embassy bombing, bin Laden sent representatives to Kenya as early as 1993 to recce future terrorist targets, both U.S. and Israeli.
From his base in Sudan, bin Laden in 1993 also issued a fatwa urging Somalis to drive from their country U.S. forces deployed on a humanitarian and peacekeeping mission.
Al-Qaeda reportedly trained militias in Somalia, including those who downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu in October of that year. Bin Laden later claimed responsibility for the deaths of 18 American soldiers in the battle.
After U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime sheltering al-Qaeda following 9/11, Somalia once again emerged as an especially attractive haven for foreign terrorists.
The rise since 2006 of al-Shabaab, which has become one of the more effective factions fighting to control Somalia, has been another boon for al-Qaeda and, as witnessed by al-Shabaab’s propaganda videos featuring Nabhan, the group has been attracting and training foreign recruits.
On a visit to Kenya last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that al-Shabaab wanted to seize control of Somalia and “use it as a base from which to influence and even infiltrate surrounding countries and launch attacks against countries far and near.”
On Monday, Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, told a television network that due to the success of military operations in the North-West Frontier Province and tribal belt adjoining the border with Afghanistan, many al-Qaeda terrorists were now fleeing the area and heading for Somalia and Yemen.