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Somalia strike targets terror

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Under cover of the Ethiopian move into Somalia, U.S. officials launched an intensive effort to capture or kill three key suspects in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa more than eight years ago that killed 224 people, including 12 American diplomats.

An Air Force Special Operations gunship struck a place in southern Somalia where the suspects were believed to be hiding, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday. U.S. military and counterterrorism officials said they did not know whether any of the men had been killed.

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"It's not clear what the outcome is at this point," said the counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was classified.

U.S. officials have secretly been negotiating with Somali clans who are believed to have sheltered the three suspects, hoping to obtain information about their locations. It could not be determined yesterday whether the airstrike was based on information provided by the clans.

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The U.S. AC-130 gunship that carried out the strike was based in Djibouti, just north of Somalia. The strike was first reported by CBS News and independently confirmed by the Los Angeles Times.

CIA, FBI and military teams have been tracking the men, particularly their alleged leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, for years, but they have proved elusive. U.S. officials and their African and European allies in the negotiations believe that one Somali sub-clan in particular has been harboring Mohammed and his associates, whom the United States describes as the leaders of an al-Qaida cell in East Africa. Mohammed, a native of the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros, faces terrorism charges in the United States that could bring a death penalty if he is captured and convicted.

Intelligence gathered over the past week indicates that Mohammed and aides Abu Talha al Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan recently fled their haven in Mogadishu and headed for the Kenyan border as Ethiopian troops entered the capital and routed the Islamic militias that controlled it.

The three might be trying to sneak across the border with false identification papers or by sea on one of the hundreds of fishing dhows that ply the coastal waters. But U.S. officials also say the suspects might be staying put somewhere in Somalia, hoping to disappear into the lawless and ungoverned expanses where they could still receive protection from clan leaders.

U.S. officials believe that influential members of the Ayr sub-clan, which they say has sheltered the three, are in touch with the fugitives and could exert some pull in getting them turned over to authorities. At the very least, clan members could provide pursuers with detailed intelligence about where the men might go and who else within their network of extremists might be hiding them, according to U.S. counterterrorism and diplomatic officials familiar with the negotiations.

"We are working through the clans to get at these people," a U.S. diplomatic official said. "That's a political reality in Somalia. The clan is the biggest institution, as much as there are any institutions."

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said American or Ethiopian troops would not be successful in finding or apprehending the suspects without the assistance of the clan protecting them - at least not without a bloody fight.

But negotiations with the militant Ayr sub-clan could raise questions about whether the Bush administration is bargaining with terrorists or those harboring them. The U.S. diplomatic official denied that, saying that engaging the groups, either directly or through intermediaries, is the only realistic way of gathering useful intelligence on the men and perhaps getting them into custody.

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Mohammed, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, was indicted in 1998 by a federal grand jury along with Osama bin Laden and others for his alleged role in the embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998. U.S. officials also accuse the three men of involvement in the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan hotel in which 15 people were killed and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Mombasa. It remains unclear whether U.S. authorities would take them into custody if they are captured, because Kenya and other countries also have expressed an interest in trying them.

Officials said they could not discuss details of the negotiations, saying that they are extremely sensitive and being conducted as the International Contact Group on Somalia works to disarm the various Somali factions and provide foreign aid.

Although no one is offering clan leaders amnesty for harboring al-Qaida operatives, U.S. officials said, the negotiations aim for something just short of that, such as inclusion in the political process in exchange for cooperation on the counterterrorism front.

The Council of Islamic Courts is made up of at least 15 small, clan-based "courts," some of which are moderate, while others have shown signs of militancy. U.S. officials believe the Ayr sub-clan plays an important role in the Islamic courts and that at least one of its influential members has direct ties to senior al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, according to U.S. intelligence officials and reports by independent terrorism analysts.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a cleric from the Ayr sub-clan who is instrumental in establishing and running the Islamic Courts Union, is wanted by the U.S. government for alleged ties to terrorism, including bin Laden. U.S. officials say Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, a young Ayr leader in charge of the one of the union's most violent militias, received military training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

Ayr clan leaders have denied such allegations.

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U.S. officials described the hunt for the al-Qaida operatives as confounding, as they try to figure out who can speak for the clan, whom to trust and who can deliver intelligence on the men or hand them over to authorities.

One of those intermediaries is apparently Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, who held a closed-door meeting Jan. 2 with leaders of the Ayr sub-clan at a Mogadishu hotel and requested that they hand over their weapons and support the transitional government.

Jendayi Frazer, a U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was returning yesterday from Nairobi, where she had been part of the International Contact Group and was unavailable for comment.

In congressional testimony last June, Frazer said the three suspects "pose an immediate threat to both Somali and international interests in the Horn of Africa. We must deny them the ability to plan and operate."

She said the Bush administration was "constantly reviewing and updating our approach to reflect the fluid dynamics inside Somalia," and that it would "continue working with Somalis, regardless of clan, religious or secular affiliation."

John Prendergast, a former Africa expert on the National Security Council and in the State Department under President Bill Clinton, said he was skeptical of the behind-the-scenes negotiations.

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Prendergast, who visits Somalia frequently as a senior adviser at the nonprofit International Crisis Group, said the Somali clans are deeply mistrustful of the Bush administration, particularly because of clandestine efforts by the CIA to fund some warlords and undermine others.

While clan members might support the al-Qaida operatives, Prendergast said, they do not control them and are unlikely to betray them unless other powerful Somali clans and political leaders promise them a significant prize in return.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.


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