A U.S. airstrike that killed the suspected al-Qaida leader in Somalia brought warnings of vengeance from Islamic insurgents Friday and the threat of a boycott that could jeopardize peace talks with the U.N.-supported government.
The biggest alliance supporting Somalia’s Islamic insurgency said it might pull out of planned May 10 talks on escalating fighting and a humanitarian crisis that has caused thousands of civilian deaths and displaced hundreds of thousands over the past year.
“The U.S. strike can undermine the U.N.-sponsored peace parlay,” said Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, exiled chairman of the Alliance for Liberation and Reconstitution of Somalia.
“We will reconsider taking part ... due to the U.S. military attack,” he said in a telephone interview from Cairo, Egypt.
The participation of Ahmed’s alliance, which includes both moderates and Islamic hard-liners inside Somalia and in exile, is seen as crucial to the success of talks scheduled in neighboring Djibouti.
First major success in string of U.S. attacks
In a pre-dawn attack Thursday, U.S. missiles destroyed the house of reputed al-Qaida leader Aden Hashi Ayro in the central town of Dusamareeb. The attack killed 24 other people, five in the targeted house and the others in nearby homes, said a town elder, Ilmi Hassan Arab.
It was the first major success in a string of such U.S. military attacks over the past year in this Horn of Africa nation, but analysts said it was more symbolic and unlikely to significantly weaken the insurgency against the weak interim government.
“This will not deter us from prosecuting our holy war against Allah’s enemy,” Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for Ayro’s al-Shabab militia said in a telephone interview. “If Ayro is dead, those he trained are still in place and ready to avenge against the enemy of Allah.”
Robow said another senior al-Shabab leader, Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, also was killed in the attack.
He said the revenge threat applied to citizens of countries friendly to the United States and to neighboring Ethiopia, which has sent troops to fight Somalia’s insurgents.
But his harshest threat was reserved for Americans: “We know our enemy,” Robow said. “It is impossible to hit missiles on our people and we let your citizens come to our country. We warn them to stay out of our country.”
Thursday’s hit was a “pretty significant indication” of improving U.S. and Somali intelligence counterterrorism cooperation, said Mark Schroeder, the Africa analyst for Stratfor, an independent intelligence risk assessment agency based in Austin, Texas.
Schroeder said his information indicated Ayro arrived at the house only three hours before the attack, showing “very rapid and excellent intelligence” that would make other possible U.S. targets wary of exposing themselves, especially at the high-profile peace conference.
“That will probably cause the Islamists to cancel those talks,” he said.
Al-Shabab, labeled a terrorist organization by Washington, is believed to have up to 7,000 mainly youthful fighters, Schroeder said. They concentrate on hit-and-run attacks on Ethiopian troops and briefly occupying towns for several hours at a time, killing government soldiers and seizing their weapons.
Without Ethiopian support, Somali’s shaky government likely would fall, he said.
David Hartwell of Jane’s Defense analyst group said the impact of Thursday’s strike “is more likely to have a symbolic effect” than operational.
“Insurgent leaders have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and there is an established order, so someone usually comes in to replace them,” he said.
Ayro had stopped fighting on the front lines after he was wounded in a January 2007 American airstrike, but could still have been instrumental in strategy and other planning.
Schroeder said the overall commanders of the insurgency remain alive, including Ayro’s mentor, Hassan Turki, who escaped a U.S. attack in March and remains in hiding in southern Somalia.
Al-Shabab is the armed wing of the Council of Islamic Courts movement, which seized control of much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, in 2006. Ethiopian troops allied with the U.N.-backed government drove the movement from power in December 2006.