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'Black Hawks' return to Somalia

Helicopter attack shows dramatic shift in US policy and comes with some peril.

A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter on patrol in Baghdad in 2004. Six U.S. helicopter gunships attacked a target in Somalia on September 15, 2009, killing an Al Qaeda leader. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya — A strike by six U.S. helicopter gunships on an Al Qaeda target in Somalia on Monday marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy to a direct hands-on approach to the failed state in the Horn of Africa.

The American gunships attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying Al Qaeda militants and killed  Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an Al Qaeda leader wanted for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and an Israeli-owned Kenyan hotel in 2002.

The raid shows U.S. President Barack Obama's administration does not intend to allow Somalia to remain a safe haven for Al Qaeda and it is determined to thwart the drive by Islamic militant group Al Shabaab to control Somalia. Al Shabaab has direct links to Al Qaeda and uses foreign troops in its battles to control Somalia.

Monday’s successful strike also begins to exorcize the demons of "Black Hawk Down," the infamous 1993 incident in which 18 U.S. troops died in a failed attempt by U.S. forces to seize a warlord in the Somali capital Mogadishu. But the action also brings some risk. Already Al Shabaab is threatening retaliation.  In recent years the U.S. has limited its actions in Somalia to attacks by long range missiles and drones. But this action was direct and put American troops, however briefly, on Somali soil. By successfully targetting Nabhan, the U.S. shows that it has precise strategic information. A futher intelligence boon for the U.S. should come from the seizure of Nabhan's body, the two injured men traveling with him and whatever equipment or computers they might have.

In Monday's raid, six U.S. helicopters swooped on a convoy of vehicles and strafed them with heavy gunfire. A Land Cruiser carrying Nabhan and at least four other senior militants was badly hit as were a number of "technicals," improvised battle wagons made from pick-up trucks loaded with heavy machine guns, according to eyewitnesses quoted by wire services.

Then two U.S. helicopters landed and there was a brief firefight. Nabhan and other militants were killed. The U.S. troops jumped from the helicopters, went up to the vehicles and seized Nabhan’s body and two other injured militants. They quickly flew off by helicopter to a U.S. navy warship waiting nearby.

The attack took place close to the coastal town of Barawe, about 150 miles south of Mogadishu, deep inside territory controlled by Al Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group.

Local elder Abdinasir Mohamed Adan said, “There was a military operation carried out by four foreign choppers in Erile village. A car was destroyed, we are also hearing that some of the vehicle’s passengers were taken on the choppers.”

“There was only a burning vehicle and two dead bodies lying beside it,” described Mohamed Ali Aden, a bus driver who passed the burnt out car soon after the attack.

U.S. officials in Washington have confirmed that special forces were involved in the attack.

The surgical attack, said analysts, is a departure for U.S. military intervention in Somalia. “This marks an evolution in U.S. operational and intelligence capabilities,” said Peter Pham of Virginia’s James Madison University.