A senior leader of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, who was accused of planning multiple attacks that killed 148 Kenyans in a university town and three Americans on a military base, was killed in a U.S. military drone strike last Sunday, according to Somali and American officials.
Maalim Ayman was killed on Dec. 17 by a U.S. Special Operations drone strike in a joint operation with the Somali national army, the officials said. He is believed to be responsible for the assault on Jan. 5, 2020, on a military base in Manda Bay, Kenya, that killed two U.S. contractor pilots and a U.S. soldier. A third U.S. contractor and two other U.S. service members were injured. Six U.S. aircraft were destroyed in the attack.
Somalia, a strategic nation located in the Horn of Africa, has been fending off attacks since 2006 by the extremist group al-Shabab, with the assistance of forces from the African Union and the United States. Mr. Ayman was believed to be the mastermind of a unit that launched attacks inside Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor.
Officially, the U.S. Africa Command, while confirming the strike in Somalia, did not identify the target, pending further analysis, the command said in a statement. But a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, said the strike successfully targeted Mr. Ayman. Somalia’s information minister confirmed the killing of Mr. Ayman.
Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has vowed to defeat the Shabab militarily and financially. Even though al-Shabab (which is linked to the Qaeda terrorist group) has lost territory and fighters in recent years, it has proved to be resilient and continues to carry out deadly attacks in hotels, restaurants and ministries that have left hundreds dead.
Mr. Ayman was also said to have planned the attack in 2015 on Garissa University in northeastern Kenya, which resulted in the deaths of 148 people, most of them students. After storming the university at dawn, the gunmen shot point-blank at students, many of whom were asleep in their dormitories.
It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in the capital, Nairobi, which left more than 200 people dead and thousands more injured.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council unanimously lifted the arms embargo that was imposed in 1992 after civil war broke out in Somalia. The Somali president welcomed the move, saying at a security conference in New York that it was testimony to the progress his administration has made.
The African Union began to withdraw forces from Somalia this year, as directed by the U.N. Security Council, and Somali military and police forces have taken over managing the security ofmajor government installations.
The American fight against al-Shabab began in 2014 with a handful of military advisers and grew steadily to a 700-member training force. President Donald J. Trump withdrew the force just before leaving office in 2021. President Biden restored 450 of the troops last year to advise Somali soldiers fighting the Shabab, who still control much of the country’s south.
Most of the 16 American strikes in Somalia this year have been to defend and support Somali troops who were fighting the Shabab on the ground. But the strike on Sunday was a relatively rare pre-planned one by U.S. Special Operations forces against a Shabab leader, and the first since May.
The strike on Mr. Ayman took place near Jilib, a Shabab-controlled stronghold in southern Somalia, the U.S. military official said.
Somalia’s information minister, Daud Aweis, who also confirmed Mr. Ayman’s killing, said that Mr. Ayman was the sole target of the strike. He declined to disclose further information on how Mr. Ayman was killed or how officials confirmed his identity.
“It took us three days to finish the process” of confirming that he was killed, Mr. Aweis said in a phone interview.
It was not immediately clear if anyone else was killed in the attack. The American command, known as Africom, said there were “no civilian casualties” following an initial assessment.
Somali and American officials say that Mr. Ayman was the head of the Jaysh Ayman, an al-Shabab unit that was involved in planning and executing terrorist attacks in both Kenya and Somalia.
Earlier this year, the State Department Reward for Justice program had offered up to $10 million for information leading to his arrest or conviction.
By targeting Mr. Ayman, the Somali government was “sending a message because we believe anyone who is responsible for the merciless acts of violence against our people has to be punished or brought to justice,” said Mr. Aweis, the information minister. “We recognized him as an obstacle to Somalia’s objective of having cohesion and harmony both within Somalia and with its neighbors.”