Tuesday, March 4, 2008

U.S. forces found, targeted and killed in a Somali desert city the senior al Qaeda operative who masterminded the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and had since spent a decade in hiding, The Washington Times has learned.

Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who is one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, was the target of a U.S. missile strike on a residence in Dobley, a small town in southern Somalia near the Kenyan border, according to a U.S. military official who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the operation.

“Al Qaeda has used this region to spill over into other parts of eastern Africa,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official, also on the condition of anonymity. “Somalia at a minimum is a place of refuge but for some of al Qaeda it is a place to plot and plan future attacks.”

The truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which came just nine minutes apart, killed 12 American diplomats and more than 200 Africans, and also injured 5,000 people.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who did not reveal details regarding the operation or name its target, told reporters that “the action was to go after al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists,” alluding that more than one person may have been killed in the attack.

“They are plotting and planning all over the world to destabilize the world, to inflict terror, and where we find them, we are going to go after them,” he said.

The 34-year-old Nabhan and other al Qaeda members are thought to have been killed in the attack, according to sources who spoke to The Times.

Several U.S. military officials told The Times that the attack was carried out by Tomahawk cruise missiles, although most were unsure of whether the missile was fired from a submarine or a surface ship.

Nabhan, an explosives expert, was also involved in the 2002 bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, where three suicide bombers crashed a sport utility vehicle through a guard gate and blew up their vehicle, killing 13 tourists, two of them children, and injuring more than 80 people. Minutes before the attack, an Israeli passenger jet leaving Mombasa airport had two anti-aircraft missiles fired upon it unsuccessfully.

According to U.S. military intelligence officials and federal prosecutors, Nabhan led al Qaeda’s East African cells and was a member of the Shura Council, the organization’s leadership group headed by Osama bin Laden. A $25 million reward was posted by the FBI for information leading to Nabhan’s whereabouts.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirmed the U.S. operation, stating that the target was a “known al Qaeda terrorist” and “we will pursue terrorist activities and their operations wherever we may find them.”

Mr. Whitman would not elaborate on the name of the target or the details of the attack. Other military and Navy officials also declined to elaborate on the strike.

“We do work very closely with our partners in the region in the conduct of our military operations,” Mr. Whitman said in a statement.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that al Qaeda and its Islamist allies have been operating in the southern regions of Somalia, near the Kenya border “for some time” and particularly around Dobley in recent months.

“They look at weak government and weaker structures to establish their base of operations,” the official told The Times.

In 2006, Somali Islamists controlled much of the country, but joint operations between Ethiopia and the U.S. in early 2007 pushed them out of most of the country. It was thought that Islamists in the southern areas were harboring al Qaeda terrorists, including those involved in the embassy bombings, the official added.

The U.S. operation targeting Nabhan comes only a month after Abu Laith al-Libi, a known top-tier commander of al Qaeda’s combat operations was killed by a missile strike on his compound in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan. A video made by al-Libi supporters, which surfaced on the Internet recently and thought to be authentic, shows al-Libi’s grandmother crying over his body.

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