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U.S. Kills Suspected al-Qaida Leader in Somali Airstrikes

May 1, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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U.S. war planes killed the suspected head of al-Qaida in Somalia and as many as 30 other people Thursday in overnight airstrikes. The New York Times' East Africa bureau chief discusses the target and the operation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. attack on a terrorist target in the desperately poor and hungry East African nation of Somalia. Margaret Warner is in charge. She starts with a report from New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman. They talked by phone from neighboring Nairobi earlier this evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff Gettleman, thanks for being with us. Tell us how this air strike actually happened. Where and how did the U.S. find this terrorist figure?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, reporter, New York Times: Well, around 3 a.m. this morning, a Navy ship in the Indian Ocean fired at least four Tomahawk cruise missiles at a target in central Somalia. It was actually in the town of Dusamareb, which is a mid-sized town in the middle of Somalia of around 100,000 people.

We later learned that the target of the strike was probably the most notorious and feared Islamic militant in Somalia. Aden Hashi Ayro is his name. And the U.S. had been carefully tracking him for more or less the last two years.

And it seemed like there was a culmination of on-the-ground intelligence, satellite imagery and communication intercepts that led the U.S. to his precise location in a house in Dusamareb this morning.

MARGARET WARNER: Were there a lot of other people killed?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: We’re trying to figure that out right now. The U.S. has launched several air strikes in the last year and a half, and often civilians are killed in the process.

Some of their strikes have totally missed the terrorist suspect targets and only killed civilians. In this case, it looks like Mr. Ayro, his brother, and at least 10 of his top lieutenants were killed, along with probably a dozen civilians who lived in the same area.

Detailing the terrorist target

MARGARET WARNER: So tell us more about Ayro. How significant a figure was he in this Islamic insurgency that's fighting the transitional Somali government right now?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: He was very significant. And he has a very interesting back story. He's thought to be around 30 years old.

He started out as a lowly car-washer, washing cars for some of the clan leaders in Somalia in the '90s, and joined one of these street gang-type militias that were fighting for control of Somalia in the early 1990s, after the central government collapsed.

He then rose through the ranks of his clan militia, and he caught the attention of a man named has Hassan Dahir Aweys, who later became one of the Islamist leaders.

It was through this friendship that he was sent to Afghanistan in early 2000 or 2001. He learned explosives training. He supposedly fought with the Taliban against American forces after Sept. 11 in Afghanistan, then returned to Somalia, and began to spread very radical and extremist ideas, along with explosives know-how.

He then became one of the Islamic militia commanders in Somalia in 2006 and 2007. And he's been leading the resistance against the transitional federal government of Somalia, which is supported by the U.S. and the U.N., but pretty unpopular and struggling with a real Islamic insurgency.

MARGARET WARNER: And he had engaged in not only violent, but some sort of fairly strange militant activities.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: He did. One of the things he's most notorious for is ripping up graves of Italians who had lived in Somalia when Somalia was an Italian colony before World War II. And Ayro had gone into this graveyard and tore up all these graves, had really upset a lot of people by doing that.

He has been blamed for the killing of a female BBC journalist who was gunned down in front of her hotel in Mogadishu in 2005.

Then, there was an Italian nun in 2006, an elderly woman, who was shot dead at a hospital in Mogadishu. Ayro was blamed for that.

He's been blamed for some attacks on aid workers and assassinations against Somali officials. So he really was one of the most notorious, feared figures across Somalia.

Measuring ties to al-Qaida

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, the Pentagon referred to him today as a "known al-Qaida target." How strong were the links to al-Qaida and in what sense?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, it's very hard for us to validate or investigate these alleged al-Qaida links. But what the U.S. government says is that Ayro was providing shelter to known al-Qaida agents who had planned the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

And there was a big East Africa al-Qaida cell. That's pretty clear. And they sought refuge in Somalia because there was no government there. And because of the chaos and the lawlessness and the violence, it was thought to be a good terrorist hideout.

Well, Ayro really helped these al-Qaida agents while they were in Somalia. And when the Islamists were asked to turn over the al-Qaida suspects to the American government, they refused. And Ayro was believed to be the ringleader who was organizing the protection and the shelter of these known al-Qaida operatives in Somalia.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, thank you so much.