WASHINGTON — A U.S. drone attacked a vehicle in southern Somalia on Monday and killed a senior member of the Shabab, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the deadly assault on a shopping mall in Kenya last month, a U.S. official said.
The airstrike is believed to have killed two men riding in the car, including Ibrahim Ali Abdi, a Somali the U.S. official described as an explosives expert who had helped carry out suicide attacks and bombings against a United Nations facility, embassies and other targets in Somalia since 2008.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the mission.
The drone strike was the first in Somalia since last year, and was part of a recent escalation in U.S. operations in the war-racked country since the mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya.
Early this month, Navy SEALs raided a compound along the coast of Somalia, intending to kill or capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a senior Shabab figure better known as Ikrima. They were forced to abandon the mission when they came under heavy gunfire.
U.S. officials have played down the idea that the recent attacks represent a direct U.S. response to the mall assault, which killed 61 civilians and six members of Kenya's security forces. They noted that neither the SEAL raid nor Monday's drone strike were against alleged perpetrators of that violence.
Abdi "is somebody we have been tracking for a while," the official said. "We have been active against Al Shabab for a long time. They are under a lot of pressure."
The airstrike, which reports from the region said involved three missiles fired from a drone, occurred on a road east of the town of Jilib in southern Somalia. Abdi is also known by the name Anta Anta, the official said.
He is believed to have been involved in 2008 attacks in Somaliland, a semiautonomous region of northern Somalia, including on the presidential palace, the Ethiopian Consulate and an office of the United Nations Development Program.
A witness to Monday's airstrike, Hassan Nur, told Reuters news service that he saw a drone attack a Suzuki vehicle near Jilib.
"I heard a big crash and saw a drone disappearing far into the sky. At least two militants died," Nur said. "I witnessed a Suzuki car burning.
"Many Al Shabab men came to the scene," he said. "I could see them carry the remains of two corpses. It was a heavy missile that the drone dropped. Many cars were driving ahead of me, but the drone targeted this Suzuki."
The attack reportedly occurred as Shabab leaders were driving to intervene in a clan dispute.
A Twitter account purporting to speak for the Shabab claimed that a man, a woman and four children were killed in the strike. The account's claim to speak for the Shabab could not be verified. Numerous Twitter accounts representing the Shabab have been closed in recent months, only to be replaced by others with similar names.
The Shabab, an Islamic militant group, controls a large swath of rural Somalia, but it has been trying to regain power since being driven out of the capital, Mogadishu, and the port city of Kismayo, by troops sent in by the African Union to restore stability.
The Shabab has faced serious internal divisions in recent years, but analysts warn that the group remains nimble and dangerous. The two U.S. actions in Somalia this month reflect the seriousness with which U.S. officials view the threat posed by the group.
Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is on the U.S. list of most wanted terrorists, with a $7-million bounty on his head.
Godane is rarely photographed, videotaped or seen in public, perhaps because of the threat of drone strikes. Some of the reports on the SEAL attack initially suggested that Godane might have been the target.
He is also seen as aligning the Shabab more closely with Al Qaeda and with embracing a more global anti-Western agenda, rather than the battle for control of Somalia that preoccupied some of his past rivals. Godane's forces have killed some of those rivals; others have defected to the government.
The Shabab has threatened more attacks on Kenya and other African countries with troops in Somalia, including Uganda and Burundi.
Cloud reported from Washington and Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.