Obama's First Somalia Strike Hits Al Qaeda Suspect

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The killing of an accused senior Al Qaeda militant in Somalia yesterday could help to sever Al Qaeda's link to militants taking refuge in Somalia. But it could also stir up more unrest in a country that is already fighting a low-level civil war, pushing Islamist militants toward retaliation against what they perceive to be American targets, including the weak, Western-backed Somalian government.

US commandos killed Kenyan national Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a helicopter raid against Mr. Nabhan's convoy, as it traveled through the Barawe district in southern Somalia. Nabhan has been on the US wanted list since 1996, when he was accused of helping to bomb the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, and is thought to be the mastermind in a truck-bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002.

There are no reports yet indicating whether the helicopter attack caused civilian casualties, but Islamist militias in Somalia allied with Al Qaeda have vowed to retaliate.

"Muslims will retaliate against this unprovoked attack," a leader of Al Shabab, a Somali Islamist militia told the AFP news agency today. "The United States is Islam's known enemy, and we will never expect mercy from them, nor should they expect mercy from us."

Obama's first Somalia strike

Yesterday's airstrike may not be the first for the US in Somalia, but it is the first major strike against a terrorist target under President Obama, and, despite campaign promises to try a different, more nuanced approach to the war against terrorists, this had all the hallmarks of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Security analysts suggest that Nabhan was a high-enough target within the Al Qaeda organization that his elimination could seriously disrupt the command structure of Al Qaeda in Somalia. But experts on the Horn of Africa say that this very success could complicate the goal of strengthening a democratic government in Somalia.

"There is serious talk that if you take out one of the three top Al Qaeda leaders, you cut off the logistical chain on the ground, so in that sense it may be seen as a success," says Paula Roque, a Horn of Africa expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane [Pretoria], South Africa. But to complete the job would require military strike after military strike, she adds, which would have the unintended effect of making Somalia's supposed leader, President Sharif Ahmed, look weak.

"If this was done with the authority given by the transitional government, for their sovereignty of Somalia to be infringed by foreign forces, then this will reinforce the impression that Sharif is a puppet," says Ms. Roque.

Somalia: Terrorist haven?

The attack on Nabhan comes at a time of increasing reports that Somalia, despite the West's efforts, may be becoming a safe haven for terrorists. …