- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya — The black Toyota SUV pulled up to the security checkpoint in Mogadishu. It was night, and 22-year-old Somali soldier Abdi Hassan recalls that he ordered the driver to switch the headlights off and the interior lights on.

“They are the elders,” said the driver, referring to the car’s occupants using an honorific for top leaders of al-Shabab, Somalia’s most dangerous militant group.

“I don’t know the elders,” Mr. Hassan said he responded, letting the driver know he would not simply be waved through the checkpoint.

Thus a routine stop at a checkpoint in Somalia’s capital turned into a shootout resulting in the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people.

Mr. Hassan, in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press this week, revealed details for the first time of a killing that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a “significant blow to al Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa.”

The young soldier’s account of the shootout was corroborated by Mogadishu’s deputy mayor for security, based on reports from police officers who were with Mr. Hassan at the time.

The events as described by Mr. Hassan show that while the killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was the result of meticulous intelligence gathering and planning, Mohammed died because he had the bad luck of running into a government checkpoint manned by a determined soldier.

The driver complied with Mr. Hassan’s order and turned on the interior light. Mr. Hassan said he looked in and saw a pistol tucked in the driver’s waistband and an AK-47 assault rifle on the lap of the man beside him.

That man, authorities later determined after he was already buried, was Mohammed, the mastermind of U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania almost 13 years ago and the most wanted man in East Africa.

“Don’t move your gun,” shouted Mr. Hassan, pointing his weapon at the man with the assault rifle.

The passenger shouted as the driver drew his pistol to fire at Mr. Hassan, the soldier recalled.

The pistol jammed, and Mr. Hassan said he fired 30 bullets, a full magazine from his AK-47, into the Toyota.

Both Mohammed and the driver shot back, Mr. Hassan said, filling the air with gunfire. When the shooting stopped, the two men in the Toyota were dead.

When the driver referred to “the elders” in the vehicle, that indicated he had at least two passengers.

After the shootout, Mr. Hassan said he noticed one of the SUV’s back doors was open, leading to speculation that at least one other occupant may have escaped.

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