Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the Mark?

A senior Somali official is confirming that Al Qaida's top operative in east Africa was among those killed in Monday's airstrike by a U.S. military aircraft.

"I have received a report from the American side chronicling the targets and list of damage," Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, told The Associated Press. "One of the items they were claiming was that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is dead"

Mohammed, 32, is believed to be the Al Qaida mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people. He is also believed responsible for a 2002 car bombing at a Kenyan beach resort (which killed 13 people) and a simultaneous--though unsuccessful--attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter jet with a shoulder-fired missile. The Israeli jet was enroute from Kenya to Tel Aviv at the time of the attack.

U.S. efforts to bring Mohammed to justice were frustrated by continued chaos in Somalia, where he found refuge. The Al Qaida leader was reportedly a senior advisor to the Islamic Courts government, the Taliban-style regime that seized power in Somalia a few months ago. Under that regime, it was feared that Somalia would become a safehaven for Al Qaida and its leadership, much like Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Such an environment would give Mohammed even greater latitude to plan attacks against western targets, with virtual impunity.

Fortunately, Mohammed's ambitions--and those of the Islamic courts--were dashed by the recent, Ethiopian-led invasion which scattered the Islamist government, and put the local Al Qaida operatives on the run. When Mohammed was tracked to a compound on Badmadow Island (off Somalia's southern coast), the U.S. military was called in. Fox News indicates that Mohammed was killed by attack helicopters; other accounts suggest he was eliminated by the AC-130 gunship.

The distinction is important. While the AC-130 is more than capable of flying round-robin missions from its base in Djibouti, attack helos (such as U.S. Army Apaches) would stage from forward operating bases in Somalia or Kenya, or operate from U.S. carriers or amphibious ships off the coast. The aircraft carrier Eisenhower, currently operating in Somali waters, has been used as a SOF platform before. However, this time around, the "Ike" appears to have its normal, embarked air wing that is comprised mostly of attack aircraft. If the attack helos are operating from a sea-based platform, it's likely an amphibious assault ship, which normally carries Marine Corps Sea Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier jets.

The missions being flown over southern Somalia are now in their third day. Descriptions of the fighting suggest that fleeing terrorists are being isolated by Ethiopian troops in heavily forrested terrain, then neutralized by U.S. airpower. That sounds like a close air support (CAS) mission to me. And, while the Ethiopians have received training and support from U.S. special forces, I doubt that any are qualified to control U.S. attack aircraft, helicopters or gunships in a relatively close-quarters battle. That's why the men calling in the airstrikes are (most likely), special forces personnel, more evidence of American "boots on the ground" and a high level of U.S. participation and planning in this operation.

Needless to say, the lighting liberation of Somalia caught Al Qaida completely off-guard, one reason that the organization's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently issued a call for "jihad" in that country, in hopes of rallying his disspirited forces. The loss of sanctuary in Somalia represents Al Qaida's most serious strategic defeat since the fall of Afghanistan, and it will seriously disrupt planning, recruitment and training efforts. It would be a mistake, though, to say that Al Qaida is finished in eastern and central Africa. There are still areas in Somalia where the terrorists can find refuge, and Sudan remains a friendly environment, despite Khartoum's well-publicized "expulsion" of bin Laden in 1996.


While we certainly hope that Fazul Abdul Mohammed is among the departed, his death has yet to be confirmed by the Pentagon. DoD officials are playing it cautiously, and awaiting DNA test results before officially announcing Mohammed's death.

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