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Al-Qaida Suffers Another ‘Major Blow’ With Death of Key Leader in Somalia

June 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, was killed last week in a firefight in Somalia. Ray Suarez discusses the future of al-Qaida and the significance of the death of one of its top operatives with Juan Carlos Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Another top al-Qaida operative killed in a hail of gunfire, this time in Somalia.

Ray Suarez reports.

And a warning: Some of the images in this story are graphic.

RAY SUAREZ: It was apparently a navigational error that led to the death of one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Harun Fazul, was in this SUV with another militant when they got lost and accidentally came upon a security checkpoint in Mogadishu last Tuesday night.

A gunfight ensue and both men in the SUV were killed. DNA tests later confirmed one was Fazul Mohammed, who had a $5 million FBI bounty on his head. Mohammed spent 13 years on the agency’s most-wanted list for orchestrating the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

He was also one of the founders of Al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia. And his death is considered a significant blow to its operations in East Africa.

ABDULKAREEM HASSAN JAMA, Somali information minister: I think it’s the removal of a problem, a person that was causing death and destruction to the people of Somalia, the region and the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Fazul Mohammed is the third major al-Qaida leader to be killed in the last six weeks. Ilyas Kashmiri, who was implicated in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is believed to have died during a June 3 U.S. drone attack in Pakistan. This followed the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs during a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a month earlier.

For more, we turn to Juan Carlos Zarate, who served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the Bush administration. He is now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And, Juan Carlos, with some regularity over the last decade, the al-Qaida number two in a specific country would be killed or the al-Qaida number three overall would be killed. How big a deal is the killing of this man?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: This is important in the context of al-Qaida leadership in East Africa.

Harun Fazul, as he was often referred to, was the senior leader and general for al-Qaida in East Africa. He was the link to the Al-Shabab movement, the domestic militant group in Somalia, the key link to the global movement, ties historically back to the founding of al-Qaida, responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings attack, the 2002, Mombasa attack.

I mean, this was really a key operational and strategic figure for al-Qaida. So, his loss is a major loss for al-Qaida’s connections in East Africa. It doesn’t end the threat, certainly, from what we know in East

Africa or from al-Qaida writ large. But it certainly is a major blow to the movement.

RAY SUAREZ: What is Al-Shabab?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Al-Shabab is a local militant group that has aligned itself ideologically and strategically with al-Qaida. It really emerged in earnest after the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, gathering enthusiasm and supporters to fight the Ethiopians.

But, in many ways, they are extremist Islamist militants. They are currently fighting the transitional federal government. They have ties directly with al-Qaida. And they have started to train Westerners.

We have seen this, for example, with Americans who have traveled to Somalia. And so these are a dangerous bunch. They have killed a number of Somali officials, including the interior minister last week. And so this is a dangerous part of the jihadi universe in East Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: So, though the killing was accidental, the current government in Mogadishu and its army would have wanted to kill this man?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Absolutely. This man was wanted not just by the United States, but by the Somalis, by the Kenyans, by the Tanzanians. This is somebody who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Africans and continued to perpetuate attacks in the region.

And so this is somebody who was wanted in the region. And I think the Somalis and the Kenyans celebrated when they found out who they had gotten.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, those embassy attacks, for many Americans, would have been the first time, perhaps along with the attack on the Cole, they would have heard the term al-Qaida.

What is Al-Shabab and its al-Qaida connection been up to since those embassy bombings in 1998?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, you have Harun Fazul and, up until a couple of years ago, his counterpart, Saleh Nabhan, another key al-Qaida leader in East Africa, organizing, continuously training and plotting in East Africa and the region.

We have the 2002 Mombasa attacks on the hotel, the attempted bringing down of the Israeli aircraft with surface-to-air missiles, which didn’t succeed, fortunately. We also had the recent attacks in Uganda on the World Cup crowd, people who were celebrating and watching the World Cup.

Harun Fazul is expected to be behind — to have been behind that. And, so, there have been not only international attack, but also attacks there in Somalia that the Al-Shabab movement has been behind. And Harun Fazul is dangerous — or was dangerous — because he wasn’t only the link to al-Qaida proper, but also was a master trainer, strategist, and manipulator. And he was great at evading capture, until he was caught just recently.

RAY SUAREZ: When a group like Al-Shabab loses a leader of this stature, what happens? There is not an official formula for succession. What happens inside the group?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, unfortunately, the Al-Shabab movement has other leaders who are positioned internally within Somalia.

I think the loss of Harun Fazul represents more to the global movement, a catastrophe in terms of their presence in East Africa. The local group will continue to fight. They are continuing to fight the transitional federal government. They are continuing to commit suicide operations.

There was just an attack on a checkpoint. And so the group itself will continue. And there’s leadership there. The real question is does it form part of this global universe of al-Qaida affiliates and lily pads, as I call them? And without somebody like Harun Fazul with longstanding ties to al-Qaida core and leadership, those ties are weakened. And it becomes more difficult for that group to serve as a global platform.

And so, the Al-Shabab will continue, unfortunately, and it will be a threat. But I think, without Harun Fazul, it becomes less of a global player.

RAY SUAREZ: Also dead recently, as we mentioned earlier, one of the plotters behind the Mumbai attacks in 2008. What do we know about the death of Ilyas Kashmiri and his importance?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, the death of Ilyas Kashmiri has — has perhaps gone under the radar screen, incredibly important killing in terms of the war on terror.

This was a figure who was a high-level al-Qaida operative operating in Pakistan, was the key senior link between al-Qaida and some of the Kashmiri militants — militant groups. He ran a group called HUJI, which was involved in the Kashmiri militant activity, was behind the Mumbai attacks, was behind certain other attacks.

And he was a key strategist and operational leader. And, so, losing him, in the wake of the loss of Osama bin Laden, is a major blow to the groups in Western Pakistan that are starting to align with each other.

RAY SUAREZ: Not so much for the soldiers, but if you are, for want of a better term, middle management in these groups, through this crescent that runs from East Africa into Central Asia, do you think twice about taking on a senior leadership role? Is it hot for these guys now?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, I’m not quite clear sure about the motivation. I think these guys are motivated regardless for the cause.

But I think, certainly, they are laying low. They understand that there is quite a bit of counterterrorism pressure now, in the wake of the Osama bin Laden killing. And so there is no doubt key leadership going to ground both in Western Pakistan and around the world.

You have seen, for example, attempts by the U.S. to go after folks like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who is a part of the al-Qaida group in Yemen. And, so, what you are seeing now, I think, is a real global push by the United States and our allies to go after key al-Qaida leaders to, in the words of John Brennan, the assistant to President Obama, break the back of al-Qaida’s leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: Juan Carlos Zarate, thanks for joining us.

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Thank you, Ray.