A U.S. missile strike in Somalia apparently killed one of al-Qaida’s top operatives in East Africa on Thursday, but while administration officials claimed success they also acknowledged facing an uphill battle to score lasting blows in their final months against the terrorist group around the world.
Political resistance from the new government in Pakistan, restrictions on pursuing militants across Afghanistan’s borders and the possibility of popular resentment in Somalia driving new recruits to militant Islam are the kinds of hurdles administration officials said could be handed off to the next president.
U.S. officials portrayed the attack that killed the operative, Aden Hashi Ayro, as a product of intensified intelligence gathering in which they tracked him for weeks and made use of the free rein granted to the Pentagon in carrying out attacks in Somalia’s largely ungoverned spaces.
Thursday’s attack was arguably the most successful U.S. strike against Islamic militants outside of Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan since a deadly strike in Yemen in 2002, reflecting broader U.S. concerns about terrorist havens in Africa.
Ayro was one of the most feared and notorious figures in Somalia, a short, wispy man believed to be in his 30s who had gone from lowly car washer to a top terrorist suspect blamed for a string of atrocities, including killing a BBC journalist, desecrating an Italian graveyard and planning suicide attacks across Somalia. He was a military commander for the Shabab, an Islamist militia, which the U.S. government recently classified as a terrorist group, saying it was linked to al-Qaida.
The United States has failed to contain al-Qaida in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and struggles even in Somalia, where the government gave authorization 16 months ago for U.S. strikes on militants there.
But U.S. attacks on terrorism suspects in the region have proved unreliable before, and human rights organizations have upbraided the United States for launching airstrikes in Somalia in the past year that ended up wounding or killing civilians.
Still, some administration officials said they wanted to make a mark on the issue in the waning months of the Bush presidency, pointing to al-Qaida’s resurgence in the tribal areas of Pakistan; the rising number of cross-border attacks from Pakistan and Afghanistan; and evidence that al-Qaida and its offshoots are seeking to establish surer footholds in the Horn of Africa and other parts of the continent.
In January, U.S. officials reached an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to intensify strikes by pilotless aircraft against suspected terrorists. A few weeks later Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Qaida leader, was killed in a missile attack in the tribal areas.
Within Somalia, there was debate over whether Ayro’s death would be a turning point toward peace or fuel for more resistance. Government officials have been trying to make a truce with more moderate elements of Somalia’s Islamist movement and argued that with a violent leader like Ayro gone, moderates would be more receptive.