Islamist leader Aden Hashi Ayro, believed to be the head of al-Qaida in Somalia, was killed when the airstrike struck his house in the central Somali town of Dusamareeb, about 300 miles north of Mogadishu, said Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for the Islamic al-Shabab militia.
The State Department says Ayro trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan prior to 2001. He was responsible for the assassination of a Somali peace activist in July 2005 plus targeted assassinations and harassment of government officials and journalists. He was also implicated in the murder of an Italian nun in Mogadishu in September 2006.
"Infidel planes bombed Dusamareeb," Robow told Reuters by telephone. "Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed."
Capt. Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, confirmed there was a U.S. airstrike early Thursday in the vicinity of Dusamareeb, according to the Associated Press. Another U.S. military spokesman, Bob Prucha, told the AP that the attack was against a "known al-Qaida target and militia leader in Somalia."
Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, described by Robow as "a top commander" in al-Shabab, was also killed in Thursday's attack.
Over the past year, the U.S. military has attacked several suspected extremists in Somalia, most recently in March when the U.S. Navy fired at least one missile into a southern Somali town.
Al-Shabab is the armed wing of the Council of Islamic Courts movement that took over most of southern Somalia for six months in 2006, until the allied forces routed it in a two-week war. The State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization.
According to its annual report on terrorism published Wednesday by the State Department, Somalia's "fragile central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula made the country an attractive location for international terrorists."
The Islamic al-Shabab militia "consists of radicalized young men, between 20 and 30 years of age," according to the report. "A few of its senior leaders are believed to have trained and fought with al-Qaida in Afghanistan."
Somalia-based al-Qaida operatives also were suspected in two suicide attacks in Kenya that killed 224 people at the U.S. embassy in 1998 and 15 at an Israeli-owned beach hotel in 2002.
Ayro was a key figure in the al-Shabab movement, which aims to impose Islamic law and launches daily attacks on the shaky Somali government and their Ethiopian allies. Ayro also recently called for attacks on African peacekeepers in Somalia in a recording on an Islamic Web site.
The violence had intensified in recent weeks, with scores of deaths in Mogadishu and a series of hit-and-run raids by the Islamists on towns outside the capital.