Senior U.S. officials and other experts said the commando raid Monday afternoon left six dead, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the most-wanted al Qaeda operatives in the region. Saleh's body and those of at least three other foreign fighters were taken away by U.S. special operations forces for forensic testing, after the raid in a southern village near Barawe, the officials said.
American authorities have been tightlipped about the daylight commando attack launched from U.S. warships off the Somali coast, and the officials would speak about it only on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. But others hailed it as both a military and psychological success after a frustrating 11-year hunt.
"It reinforces the resolve that we have as a country and sends a message to young jihadists and anybody who might be thinking about taking up the cause ... that we have a long reach and a long memory," said Jack Cloonan, a counterterrorism expert who was a member of the FBI's Osama bin Laden unit.
The use of a helicopter attack rather than a missile strike from the sea or an unmanned Predator drone suggests that the U.S. wanted to both prevent any civilian deaths and minimize local anger.
At the same time, it allowed the military to collect the bodies as evidence - a move that could further enrage insurgents deprived of the ability to complete their sacred charge and bury their dead.
U.S. officials on Tuesday described a long, patient wait for the right opportunity to hit Saleh this time. When the moment came, it involved Army and Navy forces, including elite SEALs in Army assault helicopters.
Saleh's death removes both a significant al Qaeda operative and an alleged plotter in the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 250 people.
One more primary U.S. target, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, is still believed to be in Somalia, with a $5 million bounty on his head. Mohammed was indicted for the 1998 bombings and is on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists. Mohammed has repeatedly eluded efforts to kill or capture him and is reported to be al Qaeda's leading operative in East Africa.
But with Saleh's killing, "a very high level al Qaeda guy in Somalia has been taken out," said Democrat Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism. "We've had concerns about the degree to which al Qaeda was trying to do training and maybe plan operations out of Somalia and this will unquestionably undermine their efforts to do that."
U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned that battle-hardened al Qaeda insurgents are moving out of safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and into Somalia, where vast ungoverned spaces allow them to train and mobilize recruits without interference.
Bin Laden has urged Somalis to overthrow their new moderate Islamist president and to support jihadists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and Iraq. And U.S. officials worry that the Somalia-based al-Shabab - a powerful Islamist insurgent group that the State Department has designated a terror organization - has growing ties to al Qaeda.
Al-Shabab, which seeks to impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia, vowed retaliation for Monday's attack.
The Obama administration has said it wants to bolster efforts to support Somalia's embattled government by providing additional money for weapons and helping the military in neighboring Djibouti train Somali forces.
Interest in Saleh, a 30-year-old Kenyan, intensified in 2002, when he was linked to the attempted downing of an Israeli airliner and the nearly simultaneous car bombing at a beach resort in Kenya. The missile missed the plane, but ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the hotel blast.
Several attempts targeting Saleh failed, including one in March 2008, when the U.S. Navy fired two Tomahawk missiles from a submarine into a southern Somali town.
"In the overall scheme of things, this guy being taken out doesn't necessarily lessen the impact of what al Qaeda might be doing in the Horn of Africa," said Cloonan, who helped investigate the embassy bombings. But, he added, "with him being on the most-wanted list for all these years, it gives a lot of (U.S.) people a sense of a job well done that he's been taken out."
In the coming days, U.S. authorities will also watch closely to see if the attack triggers anti-American sentiment in an ungoverned country still haunted by the disastrous Black Hawk debacle of 1993.
Two helicopters were felled and American peacekeepers were pinned down under fire from militants and briefly overrun, leading to the deaths of 18 U.S. troops. The body of one of the servicemen was dragged through the streets, prompting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia and hastening the end of a U.N. peacekeeping operation.