WASHINGTON – Under cover of the Ethiopian move into Somalia, U.S. officials launched an intensive effort to capture or kill three key suspects in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa more than eight years ago that killed 224 people.
Monday, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations gunship struck a location in southern Somalia where the suspects were believed to be hiding, a U.S. defense official said.
The strike was the first U.S. military action inside Somalia since 1994, when President Bill Clinton withdrew U.S. troops after a failed operation in Mogadishu that led to the deaths of 18 Army Rangers and Delta Force special operations soldiers.
U.S. military and counterterrorism officials said they did not yet know whether any of the three targets had been killed.
“It’s not clear what the outcome is at this point,” said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was classified.
U.S. officials have secretly been negotiating with Somalian clans believed to have sheltered the three men, hoping to obtain information about their locations. It could not be determined Monday whether the airstrike was based on information provided by the clans.
The U.S. AC-130 gunship that carried out the strike was based in Djibouti, just north of Somalia. The strike was reported by CBS News and confirmed by the Los Angeles Times.
CIA, FBI and military teams have been tracking the men, particularly their alleged leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, for years, but they have proved elusive. U.S. officials and their African and European allies in the negotiations believe that one Somalian sub-clan in particular has been harboring Mohammed and his associates, whom the U.S. describes as leaders of an East Africa al-Qaida cell. Mohammed, a native of the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros, faces terrorism charges in the United States that could bring a death penalty if he is captured and convicted.
Intelligence gathered over the past week indicates that Mohammed and aides Abu Talha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan recently fled their haven in Mogadishu and headed for the Kenyan border as Ethiopian troops entered the capital and routed the Islamic militias which controlled it.
The three men might be trying to sneak across the border with false identification papers or by sea on one of the hundreds of fishing dhows that ply the coastal waters. But U.S. officials believe the suspects might also be staying put somewhere in Somalia, hoping to disappear into the lawless and ungoverned expanses of territory where they could still receive protection from clan leaders.
In any case, U.S. officials believe that influential members of the Ayr sub-clan, which they say has sheltered the three, are in touch with the fugitives and could help get them turned over to authorities. At the very least, clan members could provide their pursuers with detailed intelligence about where the men might go and who else within their network of extremists might be hiding them, according to several U.S. counter-terrorism and diplomatic officials familiar with the negotiations.
“We are working through the clans to get at these people,” one U.S. diplomatic official said. “That’s a political reality in Somalia. The clan is the biggest institution, as much as there are any institutions.”
A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said U.S. teams or even Ethiopian troops would not be successful in finding or apprehending the suspects without the assistance of the clan protecting them – at least not without a bloody fight.
According to the Washington Post, a senior U.S. general with expertise in East Africa said late last week there were no plans to deploy U.S. troops to Somalia. The Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, with approximately 1,500 U.S. personnel, including special operations troops, has the job of conducting anti-terrorist operations and training.
The aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower was deployed in the Indian Ocean to provide air cover for the operation and, if needed, to evacuate downed airmen and other casualties. It joined several Navy ships from the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, that have been patrolling the area to prevent al-Qaida members from fleeing Somalia by sea, a Navy spokesman said.
Negotiations with the militant Ayr sub-clan could raise questions about whether the Bush administration is bargaining with terrorists or those harboring them. The U.S. diplomatic official denied that, saying that engaging the groups, either directly or through intermediaries, was the only realistic way of gathering useful intelligence on the men.
Mohammed, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, was indicted in 1998 by a federal grand jury along with Osama bin Laden and others for his alleged role in the embassy bombings. U.S. officials also accuse the three men of involvement in the 2002 Kenyan hotel bombing in which 15 people were killed and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli civilian airliner in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. It remains unclear whether U.S. authorities would take them into custody if they are captured, because Kenya and some other countries also have expressed an interest in trying them.
Officials said they could not discuss the details of the negotiations, saying they are extremely sensitive and being conducted at a delicate time, as the International Contact Group on Somalia works to disarm the various Somali factions and provide foreign aid.
U.S. officials described the hunt for the al-Qaida operatives as confounding, as they try to figure out who can speak for the clan, whom to trust and who can deliver intelligence on the al-Qaida men or actually hand them over to authorities.
One of those intermediaries is apparently Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, who held a closed-door meeting Jan. 2 with leaders of the Ayr sub-clan at a Mogadishu hotel and requested that they hand over their weapons and support the transitional government that has received support from the international community.