The black Toyota SUV pulled up to the security checkpoint in Mogadishu. It was night, and 22-year-old Somali soldier Abdi Hassan recalls that he ordered the driver to switch the headlights off and the interior lights on.
"They are the elders," said the driver, referring to the car's occupants with an honorific name for top leaders of al-Shabab, Somalia's most dangerous militant group.
"I don't know the elders," Hassan said he responded, letting the driver know he wouldn't be simply waved through the checkpoint.
And thus a routine stop at a checkpoint in Somalia's capital turned into a shootout resulting in the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people. It was described in an exclusive interview on Monday with The Associated Press by Hassan, marking the first time details have emerged of a killing that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a "significant blow to al-Qaida, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa."
The account given to AP by the young soldier was corroborated by Mogadishu's deputy mayor for security based on reports of police who were with Hassan at the time. The events as described by Hassan show that while the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden was the result of meticulous gathering of intelligence and planning, Mohammed seems to have died because he had the bad luck of running into a government checkpoint manned by a determined soldier.
The driver complied with Hassan's order and turned on the interior light. Hassan said he looked in and saw a pistol tucked in the driver's waistband and an AK-47 assault rifle on the lap of the man beside him. That man, authorities later determined after he was already buried, was Mohammed, the mastermind of U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania almost 13 years ago and the most wanted man in East Africa.
"Don't move your gun," shouted Hassan, pointing his weapon at the man with the assault rifle. The passenger shouted as the driver drew his pistol to fire at Hassan, the soldier recalled. But the pistol jammed, and Hassan said he fired 30 bullets, a full magazine from his AK-47, into the Toyota Hilux Surf. Both Mohammed and the driver shot back, Hassan said, filling the air with gunfire. When the shooting stopped the two men in the Toyota were dead.
When the driver referred to "the elders" in the vehicle, that indicated he had at least two passengers. After the shootout, Hassan said he noticed that one of the SUV's backdoors was open, leading to speculation at least one other occupant may have escaped.
Mohammed, a native of the Comoros Islands, had been on the run for more than a decade with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. Hassan said he doesn't want to spend much time wondering whether he will get that reward, which is not typically given to law enforcement agents acting in the line of duty. The U.S. does not comment on the status of reward offers.
"I'm happy that I killed the troublemaker. Somalis' prayers and blessings are enough," Hassan told AP in a telephone interview. "He has caused a lot of trouble in the country."
Hassan, who said he never went to school, said the Toyota had approached the checkpoint at 9:40 p.m. on June 7. He used the flashlight on his mobile phone to warn the vehicle to stop. The checkpoint has no barriers. The driver could have driven on, but would have risked being fired on from behind. Somalia has been at war for more than two decades, with a barely functioning government. Death is commonplace.
The checkpoint had been in place for a long time, even before government soldiers and African Union peacekeepers began an offensive in January against al-Shabab that has wrested control of many part of Somalia's capital from the al-Qaida-linked insurgents .
The death of Mohammed — a man who topped the FBI's most wanted list for planning the Aug. 7, 1998, U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — was the third major strike in six weeks against al-Qaida. The embassy attacks killed 224 people, mostly Kenyans, though also 12 Americans.
Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2 at his home in Pakistan. Just a month later, Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaida leader sought in the 2008 Mumbai siege and rumored to be a longshot choice to succeed bin Laden, was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan.
After the June 7 shootout, the Toyota sat at the scene for more than eight hours until security agents arrived, pulled the two bodies onto the sandy soil and began searching the vehicle.
"It was commander's order to wait out until daybreak," said Hassan.
The bodies were buried, and Somali officials initially said Mohammed was a South African national because he carried that country's passport. Officials combed through the vehicle. Several mobile phones, four bags of books and documents, three guns, a pistol and knives were found, said Hassan. Officials realized from that evidence that it was Mohammed who had been killed, and they ordered his body exhumed. Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said the U.S. helped identify Mohammed, whose DNA was sent outside the country for analysis.
Mogadishu's deputy mayor on security affairs, Warsame Mohamed Joodah, said policemen who were with Hassan told him that Mohammed was killed by Hassan.
"But his killing was a victory for all Somali security forces," he said.
Hassan's colleague, Osman Nur Diriye, who first told AP last week about the death of the "South African" national, also vouched for the accuracy. Hassan provided details consistent with what officials later said happened, including the driver being shot in the hand and the discovery of $40,000 in the Toyota. Higher commanders declined to confirm Hassan's story, saying his whole unit deserves credit.
Gus Selassie, an Africa analyst for the group IHS Global Insight, said it is significant that a Somali soldier, and not U.S. military forces, killed Mohammed. Selassie said the Somali government, known as the Transitional Federal Government, is fighting to win legitimacy among Somali citizens.
"As such, the TFG forces are likely to be boosted by their killing of such a significant international operative, even if they were not initially aware of his identity," he said.