MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - A U.S. missile strike that killed a high-ranking intelligence officer for al-Shabab has illustrated the stepped-up pressure on the al-Qaida-linked militants, both from American attacks and from African Union ground troops.
An al-Shabab commander said one of two men killed in Sunday’s attack on a moving vehicle was Sahal Iskudhuq, who helped choose bombing targets and used to be in charge of kidnapping foreigners.
Commander Abu Mohamed told The Associated Press on Monday that al-Shabab will “retaliate with a bigger blow and pain against the enemy.”
It was al-Shabab gunmen who attacked Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall with guns and grenades last September, killing at least 67 people. But there was no immediate indication Iskudhuq had been involved in planning that assault.
Somali officials said they believe the missile was fired from a drone.
The U.S. has carried out several airstrikes in Somalia recent years, though not nearly as many as in Pakistan, which has seen hundreds of attacks, or in Yemen, which has seen scores.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steven Warren, said Monday he could confirm a U.S. military operation against a senior al-Qaida and al-Shabaab leader in a remote area near Barawe. He would say nothing else about it, including the outcome of the operation or the name of the target.
Previously, Iskudhuq had been in charge of kidnappings of foreigners and organizing ransom deals, he said. He also was a trusted friend of al-Shabab’s spiritual leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, under whose direction the extremists forged an alliance with al-Qaida.
Iskudhuq’s driver was also believed killed in the strike, the commander said.
Under cover of darkness Sunday night, masked fighters collected what remained of the militants - bits of flesh from the charred hulk of the car in which they had been traveling, Mohamed said.
Mohamed, who visited the scene, said the fighters chanted, “God is great” as they put the body parts in sacks. They then sped away in pickup trucks to bury the men, whose bodies were charred beyond recognition, he said by telephone.
Somalia’s president said the killing is “another blow” to the Islamic rebels who have been pushed back by African Union troops. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said on Twitter that Somalia’s government is working with its partners to eliminate al-Shabab from Somalia.
Last week, more than 4,000 troops from neighboring Ethiopia officially joined a peacekeeping force under the African Union banner.
Al-Shabab has been in decline since being ousted from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by African Union forces in 2011, and now the group’s leaders also are being targeted by missiles fired by U.S. drones.