The US hopes its killing of a top Somali militant Thursday will set back an Islamist insurgency that has been gaining ground against Somalia's weak government and its Ethiopian allies.
US officers say the predawn missile strike in Dhusamareb, 300 miles north of Mogadishu, was launched against a "known Al Qaeda target and militia leader in Somalia" who had trained and fought in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda.
News of Aden Hashi Ayro's death comes on the heels of a US global survey that concluded Al Qaeda has been rebuilding its networks from havens in Pakistan, where the number of attacks more than doubled in 2007.
Released Wednesday, the State Department's annual terrorism report attributed 22,685 fatalities to "incidents of terrorism worldwide" last year, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, while noting that nearly two-thirds of those lost their lives in Iraq.
Al Qaeda and like-minded militants remain "the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners," the report said, despite a nearly seven-year war targeting the group.
Al Qaeda "has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities," the report said, by exploiting havens in remote tribal areas of Pakistan, replacing key lost operatives, and reestablishing "some central control" under Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In particular, the report said, the vacuum in Pakistan has provided Al Qaeda's leadership "greater mobility and ability to conduct training and operational planning, particularly that targeting Western Europe and the United States."
That result stems from neglecting to pursue Al Qaeda after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. “It was a big mistake by the United States to divert attention and resources away to Iraq in terms of the War on Terrorism,” says Magnus Ranstorp, of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm.
“The best advice for the incoming [US] administration would be to reenergize support for the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan [with] both hard and soft power,” says Mr. Ranstorp. “Otherwise we are going to have more terror attacks against Europe [and] the US.”
The US report notes that Mr.Zawahiri in January 2007 "urged all mujahedin ... to extend support toSomali Muslims in a holy war" against US-backed Ethiopian unitsoccupying Somalia. In March, the US designated the military wing ofSomalia's Islamists, Shabab, a terrorist group because of its allegedlinks to Al Qaeda, although few local analysts believe there is anyreal, ongoing communication.
US special forces have beenoperating around Somalia's borders; Mr. Ayro survived an airstrike lastyear. Indeed, Thursday's airstrike was the fifth by the US since the2006 collapse of the short-lived Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)government. David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia, says itappeared to be the first to take out a key target, though he questionedits impact.
"This development is going to undermine theability of the Shabab to carry out attacks in Somalia until they canreorganize themselves," he says. "But I just don't see it having animpact on overall peace in Somalia."
Al Qaeda-linked Somali leader killed
Ayrorose to prominence as a military commander with the UIC. Ayro's youngfollowers in the Shabab – the name means "youth" – had a key role inhelping the Islamists seize much of southern and central Somalia in2006.
Neighboring countries and Western governments alikefeared the presence of people like Ayro – along with suspects wantedfor the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania – wouldturn Somalia into a haven for Al Qaeda. When the courts lost control ofthe capital, Mogadishu, in December 2006, much of their support meltedaway.
But Ayro soon resurfaced to declare holy war onEthiopian forces who had helped Somalia's feeble Transitional FederalGovernment (TFG) defeat the Islamists. He used tactics pioneered inIraq to mount an Islamist insurgency. His fighters have used roadsidebombs and mounted hit-and-run raids.
In recent weeks theyhave seized control of a series of towns and signaled their intentionto take Baidoa, seat of the TFG. The fighting forced hundreds ofthousands to flee the city in the past year and brought the country tothe brink of yet another humanitarian emergency.
"Ourbrother martyr Aden Hashi has received what he was looking for – deathfor the sake of Allah – at the hands of the United States," SheikhMuqtar Robow, spokesman for Shabab militia, told the Associated Pressby phone.
But Richard Cornwall, an analyst with theInstitute for Security Studies in South Africa, says, "I don't thinkthere's many people who will mourn him beyond his close band offollowers." Ayro's demise could help moderate Islamists seek peace withthe TFG, he adds, or "it could aggravate the situation by highlightingthe US role" supporting the government.
Another analystwho asked not to be named said: "The only way out for Somalia is agenuine peace and reconciliation effort. Counterterrorism activity willnot bring peace."
Why militants flourish in Pakistan
InPakistan, security has been caught in a vicious, downward cycle,largely because neither Pakistan nor the US has come up with aneffective plan to deal with extremism along the Afghan border. TheState Department report counted attacks in Pakistan jumping from 375 in2006 to 887 in 2007, with the number of deaths quadrupling, to 1,335.
InAfghanistan, where the report states that attacks were up 16 percent,the number of fatalities more than doubled in 2007 to 1,966.
After9/11, Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing Afghanistan found sanctuaryin Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt where they benefited from theloyalty of local leaders and a lack of government presence.
The Pakistani government has see-sawed between half-hearted assaults and hopeful cease-fires.
But after each cease-fire, militants have regrouped and emerged stronger.
"Thereneeds to be a significant political and economic part of the program,"says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy inArlington, Va. "But there also needs to be sustained operations againstmilitant groups."
The near-total focus on Iraq hasprevented the US from helping Pakistan devise such a two-prongedstrategy. "Afghanistan and Pakistan have not received anywhere near theattention they deserve – especially given the threat they pose," Dr.Jones adds.
He says the current attempt to broker a cease-fire with militants has a familiar ring.
"Therehave to be very frank discussions with the Pakistan government," hesays. "Unless there are changes, this will go the same way as [thecease-fire] of 2005-06 and will strengthen a range of militant groups."
• Mark Sappenfield contributed from New Delhi.