WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Tuesday it would continue its aggressive hunt for suspected terrorists in Somalia, amid unconfirmed reports that a U.S. airstrike or follow-up attacks killed an al-Qaida leader wanted in connection with bombings in East Africa.
Two U.S. counter-terrorism officials said Tuesday evening that analysts were assessing reports from Somalia that Abu Talha al-Sudani, one of three operatives sought in connection with bombings of a Kenya hotel in 2002 and strikes against Israeli airliners, had been killed.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.
Abdirizak Hassan, chief of staff for President Abdullahi Yusuf, said suspected al-Qaida cell leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and three leaders of the fleeing Islamic Courts Union government had been killed.
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that an Air Force AC-130 gunship fired Sunday at what U.S. officials called a terrorist hideout in a forested area near the southern border with Kenya, after “credible intelligence” indicated that senior al-Qaida leaders were there.
“As we pursue the war on terror, we will seek out, attempt to identify, locate, capture and if necessary kill terrorists and to thwart their activities,” Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “We are also going after those who harbor and provide safe haven for terrorists and their activities.”
But Whitman would not say whether al-Sudani Mohammed and a third suspect, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, were the specific targets of the airstrike, nor whether any were killed or injured.
If a top leader indeed has been killed, the U.S. officials said, it would mark a significant victory in a war on terrorism that has not netted a high-value al-Qaida suspect since the targeted killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq last summer. Authorities described al-Sudani as a senior al-Qaida operative in East Africa and close associate of cell leader Mohammed, who also is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
The reports differed over whether al-Sudani was killed by the air attack or in subsequent sweeps by the Ethiopian military, the intelligence officials said.
One official described the intelligence as an “unconfirmed report suggesting it is a possibility” that al-Sudani died. The second U.S. official, however, said the intelligence suggested a stronger possibility: “There are some signs of that, some indications,” he said.
The U.S. officials also discounted reports that Mohammed had been killed.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday defended the U.S. interest in intervening in Somalia’s conflict. “Very clearly, the U.S. government has had a concern that there are terrorists and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in Somalia,” he said.
McCormack said Somalia needs a “significantly larger” regional peacekeeping force than the one slated to deploy there.
The U.S. military has been patrolling Somalia’s Indian Ocean coastline since late last month, when Ethiopian-led troops helped Somalia’s transitional government seize control of the capital, Mogadishu, from an alliance of religious leaders known as the Islamic Courts Union.
After abandoning Mogadishu, hundreds of Islamic fighters fled south toward the Kenyan border, where they have been cornered by Somali and Ethiopian troops, and blocked from crossing into Kenya by that nation’s soldiers.
Somali officials and witnesses say at least five villages in southern Somalia have been targeted in strikes over the past three days.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf endorsed the U.S. action. “They have a right to do so,” Yusuf said, speaking at his first news conference in the capital since he was named to head the transitional government in 2004.