MOGADISHU, Somalia – U.S. missiles destroyed the house of the man believed to be the top Al Qaeda commander in Somalia, killing him and 10 others Thursday in a pre-dawn attack that analysts warned could torpedo peace talks but have little impact on the Islamic insurgency.
The killing of Aden Hashi Ayro comes amid escalating fighting and a spiraling humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa nation.
Islamist fighters have staged a series of attacks on towns in the months leading up to the U.N.-sponsored talks, scheduled to start May 10. They typically hold the towns for a few hours, free people from jails, then withdraw with captured weapons.
The talks offered a slim hope of bringing together the disparate groups in the armed opposition. But Thursday's attack damages the negotiations before they begin, said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.
It may also undermine the new prime minister, who wished to include more extreme fighters in the talks despite opposition from the president.
"However much the Americans claim the war on terror is one thing and the peace process is another thing, it's not that clear-cut," Abdi said. "This will definitely have political repercussions."
The U.S. missiles left a smoldering hole where Ayro's home had stood in the central Somali town of Dusamareeb.
"The bodies were beyond recognition, some of them cut into pieces, and those wounded have been severely burnt," town resident Nur Farah told The Associated Press.
"The house was totally destroyed to the ground, also other houses nearby," said local elder Ahmed Mumin Jama.
Jama said five bodies were retrieved from Ayro's house and the other five dead and four wounded came from neighboring homes.
U.S. military Central Command spokesman Bob Prucha said the United States attacked Al Qaeda militants. But he would not confirm that it was an airstrike and would not name the target.
"It was an attack against a known Al Qaeda target and militia leader in Somalia," he said in Miami, Florida.
But another U.S. defense official, who sought anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed a missile strike targeting Ayro.
Sheik Muqtar Robow, a spokesman for the al-Shabab militia that Ayro led, called Ayro a martyr for the Islamist cause.
"Our brother martyr Aden Hashi, has received what he was looking for — death for the sake of Allah at the hands of the United States," he told The Associated Press.
He said another senior Shabab leader, Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, also was killed in the attack.
Somali government officials have said Ayro, who was believed to be in his 30s, trained in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States and is the head of Al Qaeda's cell in Somalia.
Few Somalis had heard of him before 2005, when Ayro desecrated a colonial Italian cemetery in Mogadishu, throwing hundreds of exhumed corpses into the sea. He then built a mosque on the site and began training fighters there.
An International Crisis Group report linked Ayro to the murders of four foreign aid workers, a British journalist and renowned Somali peace activist Abdulqadir Yahya.
The United States has repeatedly accused Islamist Somalis of harboring international terrorists linked to Al Qaeda, which it blames for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The U.S. has backed Somali warlords who have promised to fight the insurgents, including some warlords accused of gross human rights abuses. The strategy has backfired, deepening anti-American sentiment and thus strengthening the insurgents.
Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden has declared support for the Somali insurgents, increasing U.S. concerns that the country is a breeding ground for terrorists.
Ayro's al-Shabab is the armed wing of the Council of Islamic Courts movement which aims to impose Islamic law. It launches daily attacks the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali government and its Ethiopian allies.
Neighboring Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in December 2006. They drove out the Courts movement members from the capital and parts of southern Somalia they had occupied for six months.
But Al-Shabab continues to wage an Iraq-style insurgency and the U.S. State Department considers it a terrorist organization.
Not all supporters of the insurgency are highly militant Islamists. They include renegade parliamentarians, civil society figures, clan warlords and the Somali Diaspora.
"As much as they claim to be separate from al-Shabab, the attack will make them really doubt the sincerity" of the talks, said Abdi, the analyst.
Analyst Iise Ali Geedi of Somali University said the killings will fuel suspicions that the United States is using the talks as a fig leaf.
"The U.S. is entertaining Somalis with empty diplomatic efforts — and is chasing its terror suspects on the other hand," he said. "I would like the U.S. to support reconciliation rather than carrying out attacks."
Abdi said the killings may not greatly impair the insurgency since Ayro had taken a lesser role in the fighting after being wounded in a U.S. airstrike in January 2007.
"The fact that he was killed in his house in his hometown shows he was not actively engaged in the struggle," Abdi said, although he added that it was impossible to say to what extent Ayro was involved in strategy and planning.
In any event, analyst say, the insurgency has recently become more decentralized. Several different commanders with different agendas are fighting the insurgency, so the death of one or two commanders is not expected to have a significant impact.
Robow said al-Shabab has no intention of pursuing its aims through dialogue: "We would never have talks with the U.S., Ethiopia and the so-called government. Our aim is to see this country ruled with Islam and we are ready to die for that as our brothers did."
Over the past year, the U.S. military has attacked several suspected extremists in Somalia — most recently in March, when the U.S. Navy fired at least one missile into a southern Somali town.
"As I have said before, we will pursue terrorists worldwide," U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington. "The U.S. is committed to identifying, locating, capturing and if necessary killing terrorists wherever they operate, train, plan their operations or seek safe harbor."
Somalia has been without an effective government for nearly 20 years. The United States sent troops in 1993 to back a massive U.N. relief operation for thousands of civilians left starving by the fighting.
But the U.S. attacked the home of a warlord, killing scores of civilians including women and children. Somali militiamen retaliated, bringing down two Black Hawk helicopters and killing 18 U.S. servicemen whose bodies were dragged through the streets. U.S. troops withdrew after that.
In the past year, fighting between insurgents and Ethiopian and government troops has killed thousands of people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.