- 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.

Mohammed, a native of the Comoros Islands, had been on the run for more than a decade with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. Mr. Hassan said he doesn’t want to spend much time wondering whether he will get that reward, which is not typically given to law enforcement agents acting in the line of duty.

The United States does not comment on the status of reward offers.

“I’m happy that I killed the troublemaker. Somalis’ prayers and blessings are enough,” Mr. Hassan told AP in a telephone interview. “He has caused a lot of trouble in the country.”

Mr. Hassan said the Toyota had approached the checkpoint at 9:40 p.m. June 7. He used the flashlight on his mobile phone to warn the vehicle to stop.

The checkpoint has no barriers. The driver could have driven on but would have risked being fired on from behind. Somalia has been at war for more than two decades, with a barely functioning government. Violent deaths are common.

The checkpoint had been in place for a long time, even before government soldiers and African Union peacekeepers began an offensive in January against al-Shabab.

The death of Mohammed - a man who topped the FBI’s most wanted list for planning the Aug. 7, 1998, U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania - was the third major strike in six weeks against al Qaeda. The embassy attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2 at his home in Pakistan. Just a month later, a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan reportedly killed Ilyas Kashmiri, an al Qaeda leader sought in the 2008 Mumbai, India, siege and rumored to be a long-shot choice to succeed bin Laden.

After the June 7 shootout, the Toyota sat at the scene for more than eight hours until security agents arrived, pulled the two bodies onto the sandy soil and began searching the vehicle.

“It was commander’s order to wait out until daybreak,” Mr. Hassan said.

The bodies were buried, and Somali officials initially said Mohammed was a South African national because he carried that country’s passport.

Officials combed through the vehicle and found several mobile phones, four bags of books and documents, three guns, a pistol and knives, Mr. Hassan said.

Officials realized from that evidence that it was Mohammed who had been killed, and they ordered his body exhumed.

Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said U.S. officials helped identify Mohammed, whose DNA was sent outside the country for analysis.

Mogadishu’s deputy mayor for security affairs, Warsame Mohamed Joodah, said policemen who were with Mr. Hassan told him that Mohammed was killed by Mr. Hassan.

“But his killing was a victory for all Somali security forces,” he said.

Mr. Hassan provided details consistent with what officials later said happened, including the driver being shot in the hand and the discovery of $40,000 in the Toyota. Higher commanders declined to confirm Mr. Hassan’s story, saying his whole unit deserves credit.

Gus Selassie, an Africa analyst for the group IHS Global Insight, said it is significant that a Somali soldier, and not U.S. military forces, killed Mohammed.

Mr. Selassie said the Somali government, known as the Transitional Federal Government, is fighting to win legitimacy among Somali citizens.

“As such, the [government] forces are likely to be boosted by their killing of such a significant international operative, even if they were not initially aware of his identity,” he said.

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