NAIROBI, Kenya — Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s chief in East Africa and the mastermind of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that left more 224 people dead, was killed in a shootout at a checkpoint in Somalia, U.S. officials said Saturday.
The killing, after Mohammed encountered a Somali checkpoint in the capital of Mogadishu, was a major loss for the terrorist network, still reeling from the assassination of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan last month.
“Fazul’s death is a significant blow to al-Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “It is a just end for a terrorist who brought so much death and pain to so many innocents in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and elsewhere — Tanzanians, Kenyans, Somalis, and our own embassy personnel.”
Mohammed, who was one of the most wanted men in Africa and had a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government, and another militant mistakenly drove up to a checkpoint manned by Somali government soldiers late Tuesday night. The Somali soldiers fired on their truck and the men fired back.
A few seconds later, Mohammed and the other militant were dead.
Somali officials said DNA tests carried out in Kenya “by our friends” — suggesting the Central Intelligence Agency, which has been working covertly in Somalia for years — confirmed Mohammed’s identity.
“This was lucky,” a Somali security official said Saturday night. “It wasn’t like [Mohammed] was killed during an operation to get him. He was essentially driving around Mogadishu and got lost.”
In recent years, U.S. Special Forces have killed other high-level al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia, but U.S. officials said no Americans were involved in the latest incident, only Somali soldiers.
Mohammed, a master of disguises and several languages, is widely believed to have helped bring al-Qaeda-like tactics — suicide bombs, roadside bombs, and a pipeline of foreign fighters — to Somalia’s Islamist insurgency.
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He wore two hats, officials said, as the leader of al-Qaeda’s franchise in East Africa and a top field commander for the al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that started as a homegrown insurgency but has drawn closer to al-Qaeda and expanded its ambitions, carrying out a suicide attack on Uganda last summer that killed dozens.
Al-Shabab are often referred to as the Somali Taliban, sawing off thieves’ hands, stoning adulterers, and even yanking out people’s teeth, saying gold fillings are un-Islamic.
Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, a former Somali insurgent leader who joined the government a few years ago, has called Mohammed “an expert at war.”
Officials with Somalia’s transitional government hope that the killing could be a turning point against al-Shabab, who once controlled large tracts of the country but recently have been pushed back.
In the past few months, African Union peacekeepers and government-allied forces have been taking the offensive, steadily routing al-Shabab in several neighborhoods of Mogadishu and some towns in southern Somalia.
Scores of al-Shabab fighters have been killed, including many foreigners, and witnesses have described a growing desperation amid al-Shabab ranks, which might explain how al-Shabab’s top field commander could err so fatally as to drive into a heavily armed government checkpoint.
Mohammed, who was believed to be about 37, had been living on and off in Somalia since the mid-1990s. He was born in the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean and, according to American officials, was the mastermind of the bombings of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August of 1998. Twelve Americans were among the 224 killed.
The attacks were the first by al-Qaeda on a U.S. target.
Mohammed was indicted by federal authorities, who offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
Late Tuesday night, Mohammed and his associate were driving from Merka, an al-Shabab-controlled town, to the Deynile neighborhood of Mogadishu, also controlled by al-Shabab.
After apparently getting lost, they ended up at the checkpoint.
African Union officials said the soldiers recognized that Mohammed was a foreigner and, after searching the truck, found $40,000 in cash, along with several dozen Yemeni daggers. Officials said several laptop computers were found in the truck.