MOGADISHU, May 2 (Reuters) – Somalia’s Islamist rebels vowed to fight on under new leadership on Friday after U.S. warplanes killed an insurgent said to be al Qaeda’s commander in the Horn of Africa country.
Aden Hashi Ayro, who led al Shabaab militants blamed for attacks on government troops and their Ethiopian allies, was killed on Thursday in the latest of a string of U.S. air strikes on insurgents in the last year.
Security and intelligence sources say Ayro, in hiding since a U.S. air strike in January 2007, trained in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He was one of six members or associates of al Qaeda thought by the United States to be in Somalia.
The Western-backed Somali government is trying to stem a rebellion that has been gaining ground, but the rebels said the death of Ayro would not deter them.
« Even if Ayro has been martyred, his beliefs live on. The men who he trained and consulted are still around, » Shabaab spokesman Mukhtar Ali Robow told local broadcaster Shabelle.
« We are warning the enemies of God that we will stay on the same path like the departed … the path of true jihad. »
The pre-dawn U.S. strike on the small central town of Dusamareb flattened a stone house where Ayro had been staying and killed 30 other people, including Shabaab militiamen and civilians, witnesses said.
The U.S. military said it had carried out a strike in Somalia against a « known al Qaeda target » but would give no other details.
HIT AND RUN
Ayro was a leading figure in masterminding the rebels’ Iraq-style insurgency, which has intensified in recent weeks with scores of deaths in Mogadishu and a series of hit-and-run raids by the Islamists on towns outside the capital.
Security analysts said the killing of Ayro was significant, but that al Qaeda penetration of Somalia meant he would be easily replaced.
« There are other leaders and so eliminating one will not end the insurgency, » said Mark Schroeder, regional director for sub-Saharan Africa at risk analysis firm Stratfor.
Shabaab is the armed wing of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council that took over most of southern Somalia for six months in 2006, until government troops backed by Ethiopian forces routed it in a two-week war.
Western security officials have long seen Somalia as a haven for militants. Warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, casting the country into chaos.
Somalia-based al Qaeda agents were suspected of carrying out two suicide attacks in Kenya that killed 224 people at the U.S. embassy in 1998 and 15 at an Israeli-owned beach hotel in 2002.
Some analysts feared Ayro’s killing at the hands of the Americans would trigger reprisal attacks against U.S. interests and U.S. citizens in the region.
But one diplomatic source, who declined to be named, said the Shabaab was unlikely to be able to act alone.
« The threat to U.S. interests in the region is possible. It’s always been there, but it would take others with greater capability than Shabaab to put that into operation, » he said.
Many Somalis were afraid Ayro’s killing would inflame anti-foreign sentiment in their country and swell the number of Shabaab recruits.
« The death of Aden Ayro will undoubtedly double the efforts of their fighting against the government, Ethiopians and the Westerners, » a Dusamareb shopkeeper, Farhan Aden, told Reuters.
« More people who lost their brothers in the American air bombing will join the struggle. »