Insurgents vow to avenge US commando raid in Somalia
Aid workers in Somalia have been put on high alert after the US killed a senior member of al-Qa'ida in a dramatic raid on the Horn of Africa nation.
Militants from the Somali al-Shabaab group with suspected links to the terror network yesterday vowed revenge against "any and all" targets with Western links after the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.
Previously, US attacks in Somalia have been confined to air strikes but Monday's killing appears to have changed the rules of engagement with American troops landing in the country for the first time since their ill-fated mission in 1993, dramatised in the film Black Hawk Down.
Yesterday, furious militant leaders denounced the attack and threatened to strike back. "They will taste the bitterness of our response," one al-Shabaab commander said.
A spokesman for the group, Sheikh Bare Mohamed Farah Khoje, told Reuters: "We will never forget our brothers who were targeted illegally by the United States... al-Shabaab will continue targeting Western countries, especially America."
The assassination by US forces in May last year of Afghan-trained al-Shabaab leader Aden Hashi Ayro had already led to an upsurge in attacks on international NGOs who militants have accused of spying. Since January, eight aid workers have been killed and several NGOs are considering withdrawing from Somalia – which is in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with half its population requiring assistance – if the security situation worsens.
Washington has been hunting Nabhan, a Kenyan Muslim suspected of the bombing of a beach hotel in Mombasa in 2002 that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis, as well as a simultaneous botched attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
The latest phase of the manhunt began on Monday when at least two helicopters carrying commandos took off from warships that are part of the US Special Operations Command, lying off the Horn of Africa.
Intelligence on the movements of Nabhan, who has long been on the FBI's most wanted list, had filtered through and the aircraft were headed for the Barawe district, an al-Shabaab stronghold in southern Somalia.
Somali witnesses in Roobow village, 155 miles south of Mogadishu, say they were "buzzed" by at least six helicopters, and reported seeing troops inside them with French uniforms. Paris has since denied any involvement in the raid.
Two of the helicopters are then said to have opened fire, strafing a moving car and killing Nabhan and another unidentified man. The forces then landed near the vehicle and removed the bodies and detained two wounded men.
The US military has launched several air strikes inside Somalia in the past against individuals, including those blamed for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But Monday's operation, if confirmed, would be the first US boots on the ground in Somalia since the 1993 debacle in which 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in a failed attempt to assassinate the Mogadishu warlord Mohammed Aideed.
Washington has so far refused to comment on the details of the operation but a Somali government official, citing intelligence reports, said Nabhan was dead.
The internationally-backed government in Mogadishu has been hemmed into just three districts of the capital by a fierce Islamic insurgency in recent months. Fundamentalist groups like al-Shabaab now control almost all of the south and most of the central regions of the country while the Washington-backed Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed administration is reliant on a small detachment of African Union peacekeepers for survival.
Western intelligence agencies believe Somalia is now being used as a haven and training base by global jihadists and some reports suggest as many as 400 foreign fighters are working with al-Shabaab.
The US cited suspected links to al-Qa'ida in 2006 when it backed Ethiopia's invasion of the country to topple the Islamic Courts Union which had overthrown warlords and taken control of Mogadishu. The deeply unpopular Ethiopian occupation that followed radicalised tens of thousands of Somalis and transformed the Courts' youth wing, al-Shabaab, into a fundamentalist army.
Earlier this year, Sheikh Ahmed, the former head of the Islamic Courts that the US helped topple, returned to head up the transitional government, this time with international backing. Washington has since labelled him a moderate, despite his imposition of sharia law, and sent his forces 40 tonnes of weapons, while the international community has committed more than $200m to train Somali security services.
The fierce fighting and deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers has exacerbated the crisis in Somalia where 1.5 million people have been displaced and 300,000 people are living in refugee camps on the border.
Terror in paradise: Why the Americans wanted Nabhan dead
US agents have been hunting Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for the best part of a decade after two simultaneous attacks in his homeland in 2002. He has also been linked with the bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
Nabhan, understood to be aged around 30, is believed to have masterminded the bomb attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in the beach resort of Mombasa on 28 November 2002 and is thought to have built the device that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis. He was also believed to have been involved in a botched attack on the same day in which an Israeli airliner, carrying 261 passengers, was shot at by missiles.
Having fled to Somalia, US officials say he was a conduit between East African extremists and the top al-Qa'ida hierarchy and played an increasingly important role as a senior instructor for new militant recruits in the region.