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.
"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.
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.
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.