Al Qaeda’s external operations chief thought killed in US strike in Pakistan

The US believes it has killed the leader of al Qaeda’s external operation branch during the Dec. 8 airstrike on a vehicle in North Waziristan.

Saleh al Somali is thought to have been killed in the strike in the town of Aspangla, near the main town of Miramshah in North Waziristan. The region is controlled by the dangerous Haqqani Network, a Taliban group with close links to al Qaeda and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

Initial reports indicated that two Arabs from Saudi Arabia were among the three people killed in the Dec. 8 attack. A follow-up report, which later turn out to be incorrect, stated that Abu Yahya al Libi, a chief al Qaeda ideologue and propagandist, was killed in yesterday’s strike in South Waziristan.

“There are strong indications that senior al Qaeda operations planner Saleh al Somali has died,” a senior US official told ABC News.

A senior US intelligence official contacted by The Long War Journal confirmed that al Somali was the target of the strike, that he was a long time operative in al Qaeda, and that he had been actively plotting attacks in the West.

“Saleh al Somali is al Qaeda’s latest external operations chief,” the official said. “He was part of the original al Qaeda cadre. He goes all the way back to Mogadishu,” the official continued, referring to the infamous Black Hawk Down incident that resulted in the deaths of 19 US troops and hundreds of Somalis during an operation to detain a Somali warlord in the capital in the fall of 1993. Al Somali was also active in al Qaeda’s propaganda efforts.

Al Somali’s close ties to Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, have had US intelligence officials deeply concerned, specifically because dozens of US citizens have been recruited and are training in Somali camps. At least two Americans have carried out suicide attacks in Somalia this year. Both attacks were high-profile: one killed three Somali ministers, and another killed the deputy commander of the African Union forces serving in the country.

“This is why we have been freaking out,” the official said. “The number of Americans being recruited here in the US is deeply disturbing. That they are leaving the US to train in Somalia and fight for Shabaab is worrisome. Some of us have feared al Somali would take advantage of these recruits to hit the US mainland.”

Al Somali has been high on the US target list due to his position as external operations chief. The US targeted al Somali in the Nov. 18 strike in the Mir Ali region, also in North Waziristan. Eight Taliban and al Qaeda operatives were reported killed in the strike. Al Somali’s position as external operations chief was not made public until today.

Al Qaeda’s external operations network has been the prime target of the covert US air campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The US has targeted al Qaeda and Taliban camps designated to train operatives holding foreign passports, while the leadership of the external operations branch has also been hit hard.

Al Somali is the third external operations commander to have been killed since May 2008, when Mustafa al Jazairi was killed in a Predator strike in the town of Damadola in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency. The US killed Osama al Kini, Jazairi’s successor, and his senior deputy Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan in an airstrike in the town of Karikot in South Waziristan on New Year’s Day, 2009.

Background on US strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban networks in northwestern Pakistan

US intelligence believes that al Qaeda has reconstituted its external operations network in Pakistan’s lawless, Taliban-controlled tribal areas. This network is tasked with hitting targets in the West, India, and elsewhere. The US has struck at these external cells using unmanned Predator aircraft and other means in an effort to disrupt al Qaeda’s external network and decapitate the leadership. The US also has targeted al Qaeda-linked Taliban fighters operating in Afghanistan, particularly the notorious Haqqani Network.

As of the summer of 2008, al Qaeda and the Taliban operated 157 known training camps in the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. Al Qaeda has been training terrorists holding Western passports to conduct attacks, US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal. Some of the camps are devoted to training the Taliban’s military arm; some train suicide bombers for attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan; some focus on training the various Kashmiri terror groups; some train al Qaeda operatives for attacks in the West; some train the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s Shadow Army; and one serves as a training ground for the Black Guard, the elite bodyguard unit for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.

The US has carried out 48 airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in the northwest this year. There were 36 recorded cross-border attacks and attempts in Pakistan during 2008, according to numbers compiled by The Long War Journal. Twenty-nine of those attacks took place after Aug. 31. From 2004 through 2007, there were only 10 recorded strikes.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • kp says:

    Interesting that the AQ external ops chief is Somali and has ties to Al Shabaab and we recently took out (or captured? His body disappeared for that very reason) Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in Operation Celestial Balance a SF raid in Somalia.

    A previous droned AQ external ops leader was Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam AKA Osama Al Kini is Kenyan (for those forgetting their Arabic!) and his aide was Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan (who was another Kenyan … despite that toponym).

    I see a Horn of Africa shaped pattern here. Or perhaps a Horn of Africa shaped intelligence source for the past year. I can see why they might be worried. But I think AQ and AS will be too: how are they leaking info that’s enabling all of these hits?

    And a possible typo in the article? In this phrase: “This is why we have freaking out,” the official said.”. Perhaps should be “This is why we have been freaking out,” the official said.

  • Freedom Now says:

    What is your take on Pakistan’s conclusion of its offensive in South Waziristan?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    You are reading my mind on the AQ Africa connection, I was trying to get someone t comment on this but notta. Also note the Suliman al Jazairi was Algerian. Clearly they are tapping int the African branches for external ops talent. But without more info I am merely speculating.
    Error seems to have been fixed by Lisa, my editing partner in crime. Email me if you see any issues, I will get them quicker.
    FreedomNow, see here from two weeks ago, it is still relevant:

  • Swede says:

    Does anyone have a link to a picture of Saleh al Somali? Google image search turned up nada.

  • Tyler says:

    I’d be genuinely curious to hear if this al-Somali had a hand in that suicide bombing in Yemen on March 15 this year targeting a group of South Korean tourists.
    In that case, the bomber was acting on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but was a Yemeni who had trained in Shabaab camps in Somalia.
    And as John Berger noted at the time, the message had come just a couple weeks after a Zawahiri video specifically aimed at exhorting both al-Shabaab and AQAP. A demonstration of Al Qaeda Central’s enduring ability to coordinate global attacks.

  • Gringo says:

    I have read SO MANY times about some AQ honcho being taken out in Pakistan only to have him pop up alive a while later, that I am very skeptical about any such reports. When a US official is quoted, there is at least some credibility. When I read about a Pakistani official’s statement about some AQ honcho being taken out, I immediately file it into the Science Fiction folder.

  • kp says:

    CBS has similar comment to Tyler in “Al Qaeda’s Yemen Connection May Be Dead” pointing up the transfer of effort to Yemen by AQ (they need another war to fight).

    Al CBS: Qaeda’s Yemen Connection May Be Dead

    And in another report
    NPR: DId the US kill at top AQ Planner

    Quote: “The sources said that officials are awaiting DNA proof that it was al-Somali who was hit in the attack”

    Perhaps more evidence for CIA “CSI” team. I presume the hit in North Waziristan is not Pak controlled region(?). So getting a sample from the scene involves some “interesting” effort. Though they would also have to have an exemplar sample from him or or some relations (and so know his real name).

    And to reflect on my earlier comment about the Somalia links … perhaps it was items recovered in the Operation Celestial Balance raid that helped this attack to happen. I’m pretty sure phones and laptops were picked up in the raid if he was going to or from a meeting (hence the need for boots on the ground even if you can’t nab the guy you want alive).

  • Marlin says:

    This is an interesting tidbit about al-Somali.

    “Since the summer of 2008, I believe he was involved with planning to shift some of al Qaeda’s Arab fighters to Yemen” – the conservative state in the Arabian peninsula alongside Saudi Arabia’s southern border, where al Qaeda has pushed an increasingly violent insurgency in the past year.
    The diplomat said that between one-quarter to one-third of al Qaeda’s units in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are now led by non-Arabs, in a transition from “100 percent of these units which were once led by Arabs.”
    The diplomat also revealed some intelligence reports which suggested that al-Somali had traveled to Yemen in the past year to get a firsthand look at the situation there.
    “There was always a bit of a time lag in this information, so it was impossible to target him,” said the second Arab diplomat. “But eventually, his killing has proved that al Qaeda is becoming increasingly vulnerable.”

    CBS News: Al Qaeda’s Yemen Connection May Be Dead

  • blert says:

    There seems to be some confusion about AQ’s Yemeni connection: it is absolute.
    All of the ‘Saudis’ on 9-11 were in fact Yemenis traveling on KSA documents.
    KSA HAS ALWAYS permitted Yemenis this unique status and unrestricted immigration. They are the blue collar labor force for the Saudis.
    bid Ladin, the father, was an Yemeni who hooked up with the King — becoming his preferred contractor for palaces, airports and such. Hence the fantastic bin Ladin fortune.
    Yemen is home ground for AQ. If you remember it was Yemen that cast the sole no vote in 1991 against the American initiative to oust Saddam. We cut Yemen off from foreign aid for a decade after that. Her nay vote lost over $1,000,000,000 in that time. ( We’d been giving over $100,000,000 per year in various aid at the time.)
    The Yemenis, as a result of KSA remittances, have one of the boomingest populations on the planet. AQ is in a recruit rich environment. Yemen should be a focal point — even more so than AfPak.
    BTW, the piracy business in Somalia is cross-linked back to Yemen. In this endeavor the Somalis are the face of the attacks; the cash and scheming come from Yemen. Just think of Somalia as a cut-out for Yemeni piracy.

  • dlw says:

    When you say “American” suicide bombers, are we talking about Americans of Somali descent? Americans specifically from the Somali expat communities that were dropped into cities like Columbus, OH after the US withdrew from Somalia in the 90s?
    Just wondering how radicalized those communities are specifically as opposed to a larger radicalization of American Muslims in general.


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