A senior al Qaeda suspect wanted for bombing American embassies in East Africa was killed in a U.S. air strike, a Somali official said Wednesday, a report that if confirmed would mean the end of an eight-year hunt for a top target of Washington's war on terrorism.
In Washington, U.S. government officials said they had no reason to believe that the suspect, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, had been killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the information's sensitivity.
The report came as U.S forces apparently launched a third day of air strikes in southern Somalia. At least four separate strikes were reported around Ras Kamboni, on the Somali coast near the Kenyan border. Witnesses said an AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected al Qaeda training camp.
A senior Somali government official also said a small U.S. team has been providing military advice to Ethiopian and government forces on the ground. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
In Washington, a U.S. official said it would be virtually unheard of for the United States to be involved in an operation of this size without "eyes on the ground."
Two senior Pentagon officials said they had heard of no plans to put any sizable contingent of Americans in Somalia. However, small teams of liaison officers — such as special forces or trainers — are another matter, the officials said.
All three officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.
CBS News Investigative Reporter Phil Hirschkorn reports Mohammed, known as Haroun Fazil to his fellow terrorists, had a key role in the twin truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, which killed 224 people and injured thousands. He's also trained Islamic militants in Somalia and allegedly organized more recent attacks on Israelis tourists in Kenya..
"He's an extraordinarily dangerous individual," Dan Coleman, a retired FBI agent who spent years hunting al Qaeda, told CBS News. "He's the real deal."
Mohammed is seen in
Meanwhile, Somalia's deputy prime minister said Wednesday that American troops were needed on the ground to root extremists from his troubled country, and he expected the troops soon.
Fazul, the al Qaeda suspect believed killed in the air strike Monday, was wanted for allegedly planning the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"I have received a report from the American side chronicling the targets and list of damage," Abdirizak Hassan, the Somali president's chief of staff, told The Associated Press. "One of the items they were claiming was that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is dead."
"These guys deserve to be dead," said CBS News consultant Michael Schueur, a former CIA officer. "I hope we did get them, but in the strategic sense of 'are we closer to winning this war?' I think that's probably not the case."
Fazul, 32, joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan and trained there with Osama bin Laden, according to the FBI. He had a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed 224 people.
He is also suspected of planning the car bombing of an Israeli beach resort in Kenya and the near-simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the blast at the hotel, 12 miles north of Mombasa. The missiles missed the airliner.
In Washington, an intelligence official said the U.S. killed five to 10 people in an attack on an al Qaeda target in southern Somalia but did not say who was killed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation's sensitivity.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, meanwhile, that eight terror suspects had been killed in the U.S. air strike, and he was awaiting results of DNA testing to determine their identities. He said he believed they were high-ranking members of the Somali Islamic movement.
He also said he was not aware of any American special forces in Somalia, but that the U.S. was providing intelligence.
In three days of attacks near Afmadow, close to the Kenyan border, 64 civilians had been killed and 100 injured, said elder Haji Farah Qorshel. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.
Hassan said local intelligence reports indicated that Abdirahman Janaqow, a deputy leader of the Somali Islamic militants, had also been killed.
The air strikes were part of the first U.S. offensive in Somalia since 18 American soldiers were killed there in 1993.
The offensive is aimed at capturing al Qaeda members thought to be fleeing Somalia since the Islamic militia that sheltered them began losing ground to Somali government soldiers backed by Ethiopian troops last month. It has drawn international criticism, although Britain's leader Tony Blair has pledged support.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. military assault had been based on credible intelligence. He would not confirm any details of the air strikes, conducted by at least one AC-130 gunship. He would also not say if any specific members of al Qaeda had been killed, or address if the operations were continuing.
Somalia's Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aided said U.S. special forces were needed on the ground as Somali and Ethiopian forces have been unable to capture the last remaining hideouts of suspected extremists.
"The only way we are going to kill or capture the surviving al Qaeda terrorists is for U.S. special forces to go in on the ground," said Aided, a former U.S. Marine. "They have the know-how and the right equipment to capture these people."
"As far as we are aware they are not on the ground yet, but it is only a matter of time," Aided said.
Leaders of Somalia's Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and bin Laden's deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on Ethiopian troops.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other. The interim government was established in 2004.