U.S. officials now say that the mastermind of the East Africa embassy bombings was not likely killed in Sunday's attacks in Somalia, and indeed was probably not even in the area when the attack took place.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comoro Islander, is believed to be responsible for bothh the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as well as a 2002 attack on an Israeli hotel in Mombasa, Kenya.
Mohammed allegedly planned the attacks on the embassies that killed 225 people.
He is also suspected of planning the car bombing of the Kenya beach resort hotel and the near simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the blast at the hotel, 12 miles north of Mombasa. The missiles missed the airliner.
‘Not even in the neighborhood’
However, it is now believed that, as one U.S. official put it, he was “not even in the neighborhood” of the attacks. On Wednesday morning, Somali officials were quoting U.S. officials as saying the United States had killed him. Those officials now discount that likelihood.
As NBC News reported Tuesday, American officials continue to believe that Mohammed's superior, Abu Talha al-Sudani, the East African military commander for al-Qaida, was killed in the weekend assault by U.S. gunships, and that a local Somali al-Qaida leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, was at least severely wounded, if not killed.
Officials said a bloody passport containing Ayro's name, as well as a bloody shirt and a blood trail, were found at the scene, say US officials.
NBC reported Tuesday night that Mohammed was unlikely to have been killed in the attack.
Mohammed is thought to have been the main target of an American air attack on Sunday, Monday local time, on Badmadow island off southern Somalia.
U.S. attack helicopters also strafed suspected al-Qaida fighters in southern Somalia on Tuesday, witnesses said.
Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president’s chief of staff, told The Associated Press that American airstrikes in Somalia would continue. “I know it happened yesterday; it will happen today and it will happen tomorrow,” he said.
It was the first overt military action by the United States in Somalia since it led a U.N. force that intervened in the 1990s in an effort to fight famine. The mission led to clashes between U.N. forces and Somali warlords, including the battle, chronicled in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down,” that killed 18 U.S. soldiers.
U.S. officials speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of its sensitive nature had said earlier that the strike in southern Somalia on Monday, local time, killed five to 10 people believed to be associated with al-Qaida.
More strikes under consideration?
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman on Tuesday would not address whether military operations were continuing. Other defense officials speaking to The AP on condition of anonymity suggested that more strikes were either planned or under consideration.
A Somali lawmaker said 31 civilians, including a newlywed couple, died in Tuesday’s assault by two helicopters near Afmadow, a town in a forested area close to the Kenyan border. The report could not be independently verified.
A Somali Defense Ministry official described the helicopters as American, but witnesses told The AP they could not make out identification markings on the craft. Washington officials had no comment on the helicopter strike.
Col. Shino Moalin Nur, a Somali military commander, told the AP by telephone late Tuesday that at least one U.S. AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected al-Qaida training camp Sunday on a remote island at the southern tip of Somalia next to Kenya.
Somali officials said they had reports of many deaths.
On Monday, witnesses and Nur said, more U.S. airstrikes were launched against Islamic extremists in Hayi, 30 miles from Afmadow. Nur said attacks continued Tuesday.
“Nobody can exactly explain what is going on inside these forested areas,” the Somali commander said. “However, we are receiving reports that most of the Islamist fighters have died and the rest would be captured soon.”
‘Principal al-Qaida leaders’
Whitman said Tuesday that the assault was based on intelligence “that led us to believe we had principal al-Qaida leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them.”
Somali Islamic extremists are accused of sheltering suspects in the 1998 embassy bombings. American officials also want to ensure the militants no longer pose a threat to Somalia’s U.N.-backed transitional government.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived off Somalia’s coast and launched intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia. Three other U.S. warships were conducting anti-terrorism operations.
U.S. warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia by sea after Ethiopia’s military invaded Dec. 24 in support of the interim Somali government. The offensive drove the Islamic militia out of much of southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, and toward the Kenyan border.
Rising anti-U.S. sentiment
President Abdullahi Yusuf, head of the U.N.-backed transitional government, told journalists in Mogadishu that the United States “has a right to bombard terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.”
Other Somalis in the capital said the attacks would increase anti-American sentiment in their largely Muslim country. Many Somalis are already upset by the presence of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The warlords turned on each other, creating chaos in the nation of 7 million people.