MOGADISHU, Somalia — The U.S. helicopters, guns blazing, swooped over a convoy carrying a top al-Qaida fugitive in rural southern Somalia. Elite commandos rappelled to the ground, collected two bodies, and took off on a cloud of red dust.
The raid took just 15 minutes.
Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, wanted for the 2002 car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner, was killed in Monday's raid, according to U.S. and Somali officials.
The helicopter assault – rare in Somalia since the October 1993 battle of "Black Hawk Down" that was chronicled in a book and movie – underscored Washington's concerns that lawless Somalia is fast becoming a haven for terrorists, including foreigners who want to plot attacks beyond the African country's borders.
Al-Shabab, a powerful local Islamist insurgent group with links to al-Qaida, swiftly vowed retaliation.
"They will taste the bitterness of our response," a senior al-Shabab commander told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk publicly. Al-Shabab has foreign fighters in its ranks and seeks to impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia.
Three senior U.S. officials familiar with the operation said Nabhan was killed.
A fourth official said the attack was launched by forces from multiple U.S. military branches and included Navy SEALs, at least two Army assault helicopters and the involvement of two U.S. warships in the region for months.
All the U.S. officials were hesitant to provide details and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the secretive commando operation.
Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, an al-Shabab spokesman, said Nabhan was wounded along with three of his guards. Nabhan then was taken away by the U.S. forces, "but we do not know if he is alive or dead."
"They came under attack from six helicopters and defended themselves for some time, but due to the number of the attackers, who overpowered them, and to the fact that they were unexpectedly ambushed, they sustained a lot of bullet wounds and then they were taken by the enemy," he said.
Nabhan's absence "will not affect our operation," he said.
Abdulkadir Sheikh Mohamed Nur, governor of the Lower Shabelle region, said five militants, including Nabhan, were killed, based on intelligence reports. U.S. forces took the bodies of the dead and wounded, he said.
Nur added that he welcomed such attacks but urged the U.S. and other allies to inform Somali officials beforehand to "avoid civilian casualties."
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to give any specifics, neither confirming nor denying the scenario laid out by Sen. James Webb, D-Va.
"In concept, these were special ops troops coming off naval ships, taking out an element of al-Qaida and returning back to its original point of origin, which to me, if the target was appropriate, is an appropriate way to use force against international terrorism," Webb said, adding: "Would you agree?"
Mullen responded: "Globally, we're very focused on this." He said he would give details only in a closed session of the committee.
The raid may not have been the first time U.S. combat troops have been on Somali soil in recent years, said Karin von Hippel of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I suspect that U.S. troops have gone in rather stealthily since 2005 and 2006," she told AP in a telephone interview.
The U.S. has not gone in force into Somalia since the early 1990s, when it became embroiled in feuds between warlords. In 1993, clan militiamen shot down two Black Hawk helicopters that were being used in a mission to capture warlords. Eighteen American servicemen were killed in the fighting in the capital in the battle, including one who was dragged through the streets, prompting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia and hastening the end of a U.N. peacekeeping operation.
If not for witnesses to Monday's attack in southern Somalia, it might have gone unnoticed by the world.
Not so in the case of a 2008 U.S. airstrike that killed reputed al-Qaida commander Aden Hashi Ayro and two dozen civilians. The attack enraged Somalis, many of whom view the U.S. as an enemy because missiles from its warships have hit their country.
The U.S. has since tried to reduce civilian casualties. Somalia analyst Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group said the tactics used Monday mirrored moves in Afghanistan and Pakistan to limit missile strikes.
"This was a very well-planned operation, meticulous," Abdi said. "That should help contain any backlash. The impact is much less than it would have been if bystanders were hit."
Nabhan, 30, from Mombasa, Kenya, was suspected of being behind the 2002 attacks that targeted Israelis. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa. Missiles were fired at the Israeli airliner as it took off from the city's airport but missed the jet. Nabhan was one of those who allegedly fired a missile.
Nabhan was arrested by Kenyan police in 2002 before the attacks for suspected robbery, along with another al-Qaida member, but he disappeared into Somalia after being released on bail. Police said they had not realized they had two top African al-Qaida figures in their custody.
The other man, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed from the Comoros Islands, escaped and is believed to be in Somalia. Mohammed, sought for the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, is on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list with a reward of up to $5 million on his head.
Other alleged al-Qaida operatives believed to be in Somalia include Sudanese explosives expert Abu Talha al-Sudani.
Two U.S. military officials said forces from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command were involved in Monday's raid about 155 miles south of Mogadishu. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was secret.
Abdi Fitah Shawey, the deputy mayor for security affairs in Mogadishu, cited intelligence reports in confirming Nabhan was killed.
Witnesses said six helicopters buzzed an insurgent-held village near Barawe, in southern Somalia, before two of them opened fire, killing two and wounding two.
The U.N.-backed government, with support from African Union peacekeepers, holds only a few blocks of Mogadishu. Fighting rages nearly every day, and thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire.
Von Hippel said the conflict has gotten bloodier because there are more foreign fighters bringing in more weapons, and they are starting to use suicide bombers.
Associated Press writers Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Pauline Jelinek and Lolita Baldor in Washington, Carley Petesch in Johannesburg, and Katharine Houreld, Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Makda Tesfaledet in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.