Somalia: Deadly, Even For al Qaeda

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The reported death of the mastermind of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Nigeria Tanzania finally brings to a close the opening chapter of what went on to become the war on terror. Photographs and DNA analysis on the bodies of two men shot and killed at a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) roadblock in Mogadishu overnight on Tuesday revealed one was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, 38. Fazul and another militant leader, Mohammed Dere, had been traveling across the Somali capital between positions held by the al Qaeda-affialiated militia, al Shabab, but seemingly took a wrong turn. There was little hiding who they were. Inside their truck were Shabab documents, laptops, medicines, mobile phones and $40,000 in cash.

Fazul, originally from the Comoros islands but carrying a South African passport at the time of his death, had eluded US terrorist hunters for more than a decade despite a $5 million bounty on his head. The twin bombings of August 7, 1998 in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi killed a total of 230 people and were the first attacks to propel al Qaeda and its violent anti-American, fundamentalist creed to international prominence. Despite retaliatory airstrikes on Afghanistan and Sudan and a massive FBI manhunt, the three attack leaders – Fazul, the commander, Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and bombmaker Tariq Abdullah, a.k.a. Abu Taha al-Sudani – remained at large. They were believed to have been involved in a second attack on an Israeli-hotel in Mombasa in 2002 in which 14 people died and a simultaneous unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner. In 2003, staff at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi evacuated for a week following reports that Fazul wanted to level the new building, and in 2006 al-Sudani was implicated in a plot to attack a U.S. base in Djibouti. Latterly Fazul was latterly also a key figure inside al Shabab, which in a few years has grown from local militia to international terror group: in July 2010, it killed 76 people in twin bombings in Kampala, Uganda – retaliation for Uganda sending its troops to Somalia as part of an African Union force to protect the TFG.

But in the last five years it seems Somalia has become too dangerous even for wanted international terrorists. In 2006, Somalia’s Islamists seized control of Mogadishu. Many Somalis welcomed the law and order the militants brought to the city, which had then been without a government for 15 years. But their time in power only lasted a few months. When one Islamist leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, declared a jihad on Ethiopia, Ethiopia invaded Somalia on Christmas Eve 2006. According to reports at the time, the Ethiopians – better armed and trained – slaughtered thousands of Islamists. The militants quickly fled Mogadishu and as they did so, the Ethiopians and US Special Operations troops traveling with them called in airstrikes to take out key leaders. (See here for the full story). One of those was aimed at Fazul, though he was later discovered to have been in Kenya at the time. But a second strike by an Ethiopian helicopter did kill al-Sudani, the bomb-maker. And when the fighting ended and the Ethiopians settled in for a bloody occupation, the US decided to continue its strikes. It killed Shabab’s leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, in a missile strike 2008. US helicopter gunships killed Nabhan as he traveled in a convoy in southern Somalia in 2009.

Fazul’s death means the last of 1998 bombers has been eliminated. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is on a tour of Africa, described his shooting as a “significant blow to Al-Qaeda, its extremist allies and its operations in East Africa.” The death of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists – a well-armed, well-funded killer who had evaded capture or confrontation for years – is also an indication of quite how dangerous Somalia is. Normally that’s reason for concern. But as Somalia becomes a grave to yet another of its most wanted, it’s also something for which the US can be grateful.