- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The U.S. has taken its covert war in East Africa public with an air strike this week on suspected al Qaeda leaders in Somalia.

The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that an AC-130 gunship attacked terror suspects in southern Somalia on Monday. The targets were thought to be al Qaeda operatives who carried out the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The trio and Islamist allies have been working to make the ungoverned Somalia a terrorist safe haven.

The strike came amid a mass exodus from Mogadishu, the capital, of Islamist militants who had been routed by a combined force of the Ethiopian and Somali governments.

In a sign that more strikes could come from the U.S. or Ethiopian allies, the Navy has positioned the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower off the coast and begun flying reconnaissance missions over Somalia.

It was the first overt U.S. military strike in Somalia since 1994, shortly after Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos battled Islamist militants and clans in a 1993 street battle immortalized in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” The battle cost 18 American lives and prompted President Clinton to withdraw all U.S. forces.

Senior defense sources say the AC-130 was not the first action in and around Somalia since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent placement of a U.S. military task force in Djibouti a few miles from the Somalia border. The sources said the task force has periodically launched special operations missions against militants, but they declined to give specifics of where and when.

In addition, the U.S. has sent a specialized military intelligence unit into Somalia from time to time to try to locate and identify al Qaeda operatives.

The Washington Times learned of one mission in which the unit located an al Qaeda cell in Somalia and passed the information on to Jordanian officials. “They took it from there,” one defense source said. Jordanian King Abdullah II is one of America’s strongest Arab allies in the war on terror.

The U.S. has been hunting three key al Qaeda leaders on the Horn of Africa who carried out the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies. They are Abu Talha al-Sudani, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.

In testimony last summer, Jendayi E. Frazer, the State Department’s assistant secretary for African affairs, told Congress the three suspects “pose an immediate threat to both Somalia and international interests in the Horn of Africa.”

She said U.S. counterterrorism planning was “directly related to the presence of these foreign terrorists and individuals willing to offer them safe haven within Somalia.” She promised “strong measures to deny terrorists safe haven in Somalia. We must deny them the ability to plan and operate.”

The U.S. task force in Djibouti was one of the first overseas deployments in the war ordered by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. One of its key tasks is to train the military of friendly governments, such as Ethiopia, in counterterrorism. Ethiopia, like other East African nations, maintains liaison officers at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

“We have close ties to the Ethiopians,” said a former Central Command officer.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed Monday’s attack, saying it was based on intelligence on the ground. But the source had no confirmation of who was killed. An intelligence official said the AC-130 volleys killed five to 10 persons.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow declined to discuss the specific strike, but reiterated America’s right to go after al Qaeda globally.

“It is pretty clear that this administration continues to go after al Qaeda,” he said. “We are interested in going after those who have perpetrated acts of violence against Americans, including bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and we will continue to conduct whatever operations we can to go after that.”

“We’ve made it clear that this is a global war on terror, and this is a reiteration of the fact that people who think that they’re going to try to establish safe haven for al Qaeda anyplace need to realize that we’re going to find them.”

The Associated Press quoted Abdullahi Yusuf, head of Somalia’s U.N.-supported Transitional Federal Government, as saying, the U.S. “has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.”

Former military officials said the two main operational al Qaeda figures who are regarded as key threats are Fazul Mohammed and a fourth operative, Aden Hashi Ayro.

“Ayro is fast outpacing Fazul as the major threat,” said a former military official close to the region.

One of the former officials said the U.S. raid was a setback for covert regional efforts to broker a deal among moderate Somali Muslims and the U.N.-backed government.

“The action that took place as of late is none too subtle and counterproductive,” the former official said. Initial indications are that “minor players were hit and none of the big fish were fried.”

The administration has been low-key in discussing developments in Somalia, as the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Courts Union outfought government forces and captured the capital last year. But privately, it considers last month’s rout of Islamists from Mogadishu as a victory in the war on terror.

c Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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