One recurring feature of the "War on Terror" has been Americans bombing various places around the world and saying they had been targeting a "top al-Qa'ida operative". Often those on the receiving end have been foot-soldiers in a local conflict or hapless civilians unfortunate enough to be at a place targeted by faulty "intelligence".
The killing of Aden Hashi Ayro, in an airstrike at the town of Dusamareb in Somalia, however, appears to be one of the occasions on which the US did get their man. And if Ayro was not quite Osama bin Laden's henchman in the Horn of Africa, as the Pentagon has predictably claimed, he was certainly a militant Islamist commander of some standing who has been suspected of numerous acts of violence in the region, including the murders of Kate Peyton, the BBC correspondent in the region, and four Western aid workers.
Ayro's death was confirmed by Mukhtar Ali Robow, an official of his al-Shabaab group who said that "infidel planes had martyred our brother Aden Hashi. He was an important leader and he has received what he was looking for – death for the sake of Allah at the hands of the United States." Although Ayro was undoubtedly an important leader, his past history does not lead one to believe that he was seeking martyrdom. Indeed, one of his claims to fame among his followers had been his ability to evade numerous attempts to kill or capture him by the United States and its allies. The closest the American military came to success was last year, following another air attack, when DNA evidence showed that their prey had been wounded.
Just what impact Ayro's death will have on the conflict in the Horn of Africa remains unclear. It is not in dispute that he was one of those most instrumental in the sweeping successes enjoyed by Islamist forces in Somalia in their rise to power, before they were removed by American-backed Ethiopian forces. However, Ayro has since then increasingly branched out on his own, away from his former comrades, and his group of al-Shabaab fighters is now one of many fighting in a conflict which gets little coverage in the West but which has been the focus of a sizeable American and Western force based at Djibouti.
Ayro fitted the bill of a stereotypical jihadist leader. He is said to have received training in Afghanistan and met senior members of al-Qa'ida before returning to Somalia where his uncle, and mentor, Hassan Dahir Aweys, placed him in charge of the Islamic courts militia. After the forces of the Somali warlords had been swept aside and the Islamists taken over Mogadishu, Ayro is said to have sent Somali fighters to the Lebanon to fight the Israelis. Some of them, Western security officials said, had returned to Somalia accompanied by members of Hizbollah.
It is difficult to ascertain just how much of this is actually accurate. Some public figures I spoke to in Mogadishu, both Islamists and in the business community, after the forces of the Islamic courts swept to power in the summer of 2006, were of the opinion that Western intelligence had created the "myth of Ayro", just in the way they had built up the Sunni insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq until every suicide bombing appeared to have taken place at his personal direction. Ayro, they said, was a somewhat unbalanced individual who revelled in his growing notoriety and carried out outrageous acts to gain further publicity.
One of these acts was to dig up the bodies at the Italian cemetery in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and build a corrugated-iron mosque on the site. The remains were then sold to the Italian government, the revenue going towards arming his militia. When elders of his clan, the Habr Gadir, protested at this, Ayro warned them that they were following a dangerous path by "supporting infidels" and would suffer unless this stopped.
Even in a place bristling with gunmen like Mogadishu, Ayro, a man so thin that he looked almost frail, with a round soft face, inspired genuine fear. Abdirahman Diriiye Warsame, a veteran of the insurgency against the former president Mohamed Siad Barre, was shot dead after he denounced the cemetery desecration, one of around a dozen senior militant figures who were assassinated in a campaign involving Ayro to cleanse suspect elements.
Other leading figures in the Islamic courts movement were careful not to criticise him in public. The "moderate" face of the group, Sheikh Ahmed Sharif, insisted to me: "The claims made against him by the Americans are exaggerated. As far as we know, he is a normal citizen trying to help Somalia. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, anyone can go there, why not?"
One very brief encounter with Ayro proved to be an unnerving business. I was acutely aware that he had been blamed for the death of the BBC journalist Kate Peyton, who was shot dead outside her hotel in Mogadishu in 2005. Another reporter, Mahad Elmi, whom I got to know well, had once interviewed Ayro who did not like the subsequent broadcast. So were there a lot of threats? "No, no phone calls at all," Mahad Elmi remembered. "But I was told he was very angry. Then, a few days later, they threw a couple of grenades into the building. Luckily no one was hurt badly . . . That is the type of man Ayro was, his kind of people thrive in a lawless place like Somalia."
Elmi, a very brave journalist who had stood up to warlords, insurgents and government ministers, was shot dead last year, killed not when his country was controlled by the Islamists, "the allies of al-Qa'ida", but after "democratic rule" was supposedly restored by the Transitional Federal Government, backed by the West, a collateral casualty in the "War on Terror".
Aden Hashi Ayro, militant commander: born c1976; died Dusamareb, Somalia 1 May 2008.
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