NAIROBI, Kenya -- Aden Hashi Ayro, long identified as one of al-Qaida's top operatives in East Africa and the leader of the Islamist comeback in Somalia, was killed yesterday morning by an American airstrike, according to U.S. and Somali officials.
Ayro was one of the most feared and notorious figures in Somalia, a short, wispy man believed to be in his 30s who had gone from lowly car washer to top terrorist suspect blamed for a string of atrocities, including ripping up an Italian graveyard, killing a BBC journalist and planning suicide attacks all across Somalia.
He was a military commander for the Shebab, an Islamist militia, which the U.S. government recently classified as a terrorist group, saying it was linked to al-Qaida.
Somalia officials said his death could be a turning point in defeating the Islamists, who have seized several towns in recent weeks, and in bringing peace to the country.
"This will definitely weaken the Shebab," said Mohamed Aden, consul for Somalia's embassy in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya. "This will help with reconciliation. You can't imagine how many Somalis are saying, 'Yes, this is the one.' The reaction is so good."
Missile attacks on terror suspects in the region have repeatedly proved unreliable, and human rights organizations have upbraided the U.S. government for launching airstrikes inside Somalia that ended up killing civilians instead, which has happened several times in the past year.
In this case, Maj. Sherri Reed, a spokeswoman for the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., confirmed that the military had attacked "a known al-Qaida target" in the central Somali town of Dhusamareb, but declined to give more details of the pre-dawn strike.
"It's significant," said Reed, who said there was no evidence to suggest the attack had resulted in any civilian casualties.
But a U.S. military official in Washington, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation, said that at least four Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from a Navy ship off the Somali coast had slammed into a small compound of single-story buildings in Dhusamareb, a well-known hideout for Ayro and his associates. The official confirmed that Ayro was dead, along with several top lieutenants.
"This was in the works for some time," said the official. He said U.S. intelligence agents had been tracking Ayro for weeks, through a combination of communications intercepts, satellite imagery and other intelligence.
About 3 a.m. yesterday, residents of Dhusamareb were jolted out of bed by several large explosions. According to witnesses and a spokesman for the Shebab, more than 10 people were killed, including Ayro, his brother and several other high-ranking Shebab commanders.
Some witnesses said that as many as 30 people were dead and that residents were counting skulls to determine the precise number of casualties.
"Infidel planes bombed Dhusamareb," a Shebab spokesman, Mukhtar Ali Robow, told Reuters. "Two of our important people, including Ayro, were killed."
The U.S. official said: "For the Horn of Africa, this is pretty significant. He's certainly considered a leader in al-Qaida's effort there. This can be chalked up as a success."
Dhusamareb, a town of about 100,000 people along one of the few highways in Somalia, is a stronghold of the Ayr clan, which Ayro belongs to. In the past few weeks, residents said, Islamist fighters had moved into the town, part of their strategy to wrest back control from the Transitional Federal Government, which is officially in charge of Somalia but wields little power.
In 2006, Ayro was one of the militia commanders of an Islamist movement that briefly ruled Somalia. That rule ended in December 2006 when Ethiopian troops, backed up by U.S. intelligence and air power, ousted the Islamists.
Since then, American forces have launched several airstrikes inside Somalia, including one in January 2007 that was thought to have wounded Ayro.
In the past attacks, cruise missiles were often used, launched from U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean.
U.S. officials have said Somalia's government has given them permission to attack terrorist suspects on Somali soil. American officials have accused Ayro of protecting wanted al-Qaida members, including some of the men thought to have planned the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Ayro's life story is a bit sketchy. According to Somali intelligence agents, he dropped out of school at a young age to wash cars and join one of the street-gang-type militias that were fighting for control of Somalia in the early 1990s after the central government collapsed.
He became friends with a leader of his clan, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who arranged for him to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against American forces in 2001. He then returned to Mogadishu and trained fellow fighters in explosives, according to the International Crisis Group, a research organization that specializes in analyzing conflicts.
In January 2005, Ayro desecrated the graves of dozens of Italians who had been buried in Mogadishu decades ago, when Somalia was an Italian colony. Ayro was essentially disowned by his clan after that. But his militant activities only increased, and in February 2005 he was blamed for gunning down a BBC news producer outside her hotel in Mogadishu.
Ayro had recently gone to Dhusamareb with a band of his fighters to help set up a local administration. But clan elders rejected him, said Mohammed Uluso, a leader of the Ayr clan, because the elders "didn't want to mix up their legitimate goals with something suspicious." That might have been part of Ayro's undoing, because Somali officials said that people in Dhusamareb provided U.S. forces with up-to-the-minute intelligence on Ayro's movements.
Uluso said Ayro was small and thin and looked like "a high school student, not this big guy the Americans were after." Uluso said the Shebab would continue to be a potent resistance force even after Ayro's death because many young Somalis saw the Shebab as a "heroic cause" in terms of standing up to the Americans. (Shebab is Arabic for youth.)