NAIROBI, Kenya — A strike by six U.S. helicopter gunships on an Al Qaeda target in Somalia on Monday marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy to a direct hands-on approach to the failed state in the Horn of Africa.
The American gunships attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying Al Qaeda militants and killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an Al Qaeda leader wanted for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and an Israeli-owned Kenyan hotel in 2002.
The raid shows U.S. President Barack Obama's administration does not intend to allow Somalia to remain a safe haven for Al Qaeda and it is determined to thwart the drive by Islamic militant group Al Shabaab to control Somalia. Al Shabaab has direct links to Al Qaeda and uses foreign troops in its battles to control Somalia.
Monday’s successful strike also begins to exorcize the demons of "Black Hawk Down," the infamous 1993 incident in which 18 U.S. troops died in a failed attempt by U.S. forces to seize a warlord in the Somali capital Mogadishu. But the action also brings some risk. Already Al Shabaab is threatening retaliation. In recent years the U.S. has limited its actions in Somalia to attacks by long range missiles and drones. But this action was direct and put American troops, however briefly, on Somali soil. By successfully targetting Nabhan, the U.S. shows that it has precise strategic information. A futher intelligence boon for the U.S. should come from the seizure of Nabhan's body, the two injured men traveling with him and whatever equipment or computers they might have.
In Monday's raid, six U.S. helicopters swooped on a convoy of vehicles and strafed them with heavy gunfire. A Land Cruiser carrying Nabhan and at least four other senior militants was badly hit as were a number of "technicals," improvised battle wagons made from pick-up trucks loaded with heavy machine guns, according to eyewitnesses quoted by wire services.
Then two U.S. helicopters landed and there was a brief firefight. Nabhan and other militants were killed. The U.S. troops jumped from the helicopters, went up to the vehicles and seized Nabhan’s body and two other injured militants. They quickly flew off by helicopter to a U.S. navy warship waiting nearby.
The attack took place close to the coastal town of Barawe, about 150 miles south of Mogadishu, deep inside territory controlled by Al Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group.
Local elder Abdinasir Mohamed Adan said, “There was a military operation carried out by four foreign choppers in Erile village. A car was destroyed, we are also hearing that some of the vehicle’s passengers were taken on the choppers.”
“There was only a burning vehicle and two dead bodies lying beside it,” described Mohamed Ali Aden, a bus driver who passed the burnt out car soon after the attack.
U.S. officials in Washington have confirmed that special forces were involved in the attack.
The surgical attack, said analysts, is a departure for U.S. military intervention in Somalia. “This marks an evolution in U.S. operational and intelligence capabilities,” said Peter Pham of Virginia’s James Madison University.
In the past air strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Somalia — including an attempt to kill Nabhan with Tomahawk missiles in March last year — have missed, killing civilians instead.
Monday’s attack was both more successful in achieving its aim and in avoiding the kind of civilian casualties that have dogged the fight against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Somalia. It shows the U.S. intends to attack Al Qaeda wherever it finds operatives from Somalia to Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Nabhan’s killing will be welcomed in Washington. He was regarded as one of the most high profile Al Qaeda terrorists operating in Somalia and was considered to be a crucial link between Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab.
“This is a setback for Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in East Africa because Nabhan was the communication link with the wider Al Qaeda network in Arabia,” Pham said.
The Kenyan-born 30-year-old was wanted by the FBI for questioning in connection with the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa and the near-simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airplane leaving from the airport there.
Three Israelis and 10 Kenyans were killed when suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Paradise Hotel in November 2002 shortly after terrorists narrowly missed hitting a Tel Aviv-bound plane with their surface-to-air missiles. Nabhan was blamed for both attacks.
Nabhan was also wanted by Kenyan police for alleged involvement in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam that killed 229 and wounded thousands.
Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for all of these deadly attacks.
Since fleeing to Somalia, Nabhan has not played a leadership role in Al Shabaab but has managed terrorist training camps, analysts said. Al Shabaab commanders threatened reprisals."They will tast the bitterness of our response," an Al Shabaab commander told Associated Press.
"Al Shabaab will continue targetting Western countries, especially America ... we are killing them and they are hunting us," said spokesman sheikh Bare mahamed Farah Khoje, to Reuters.
U.S. troops and other Western forces in East Africa are bracing for retaliation.
“A backlash in Somalia is bound to happen, but what is more worrying is what kind of retaliation we might see against Western targets in the Horn of Africa region,” said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Despite the presence of about 5,000 African Union peacekeepers, Al Shabaab and allied Islamist militias have besieged the government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed raising fears among Western governments that Somalia may became an Afghanistan-like safe haven for
Al Qaeda terrorists.
In response the U.S. and other Western governments have bolstered their support to Ahmed’s shaky government which controls only small pockets of the capital. In June the U.S. confirmed it sent 40 tons of arms and ammunition to Ahmed’s forces.
"Certainly if Al Shabaab were to obtain a haven in Somalia which could then attract Al Qaeda and other terrorist actors, it would be a threat to the United States," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after meeting with Somalia's beleaguered leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed during her visit to Africa in August.