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.