To the U.S. officials who had tracked him for years before killing him Thursday, Aden Hashi Ayro was the public face of one of Al Qaeda's most dangerous allies -- a brutal militia in Somalia that has been increasing its attacks in the war-torn nation.
Ayro was the commander of Shabab, an indigenous armed group that the U.S. government formally classified as a terrorist organization less than two months ago, in part because of stepped-up suicide bombings and other attacks.
He was killed by an early morning U.S. Navy missile strike on his suspected hide-out near the town of Dusa Marreb in central Somalia, along with several senior associates and some civilians. The region is overseen by the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, which deploys 2,000 U.S. military and other personnel out of nearby Djibouti in an effort to combat what U.S. officials say is a growing threat from terrorism in East Africa.
Shabab acknowledged Ayro's death, but Maj. Sherri Reed, a spokeswoman for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., would confirm only that a strike was launched against "a known Al Qaeda target and militia leader in Somalia." She said she could not discuss specifics, but that the military was working with regional partners in East Africa on continuing counter-terrorism efforts.
Muktar Robow, also known as Abu Mansur, a commander who serves as a militia spokesman, said Ayro and Sheik Muhidin Mohamud Omar, another top commander, were killed.
Ayro was described by U.S. counter-terrorism and intelligence officials as a battle-hardened radical fundamentalist who took pleasure, and often played a personal role, in his militia's killing of a journalist, political and business leaders, peace activists and even an Italian nun in Somalia in recent years. Also known as the Islamic Youth Movement, Shabab has been launching almost daily attacks in its effort to impose Islamic law, and Ayro recently told his followers to go after peacekeepers sent to Somalia by the African Union.
Ayro, believed to be in his late 30s, trained young militant followers in paramilitary camps in East Africa, including one he established in an Italian cemetery in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, the officials said.
"He dug up the bones, desecrated the graves. He thought it was quite funny, desecrating the graves of the infidels," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official who has spent time in Africa.
"In a very brutal environment, Ayro has stood head and shoulders above other militia leaders as being exceptionally prone to violence," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss international counter-terrorism matters. "He has been one of the most negative forces on the Somali landscape for years and was one of the most dangerous threats to American interests in the region."
Ayro trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and in recent years was a key conduit between the terrorist network's leaders in Pakistan and cells in East Africa, helping move men, money and supplies used in attacks, the official and others said. His militia is essentially the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a radical fundamentalist political alliance that has fought the U.S.-supported transitional government in Somalia, destabilizing the country to the point where no one is in charge.
U.S. intelligence and military officials said they have been pursuing Ayro and several foreign-born Al Qaeda associates in Somalia for at least several years, since information linked them to the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed at least 15 people and the near-simultaneous failed attempt at the Indian Ocean resort's airport to take out an Israeli commercial airliner with shoulder-fired missiles. Ayro is believed to have survived at least one previous airstrike, in January 2007.
Shabab has trained fighters from whom to select a replacement immediately, but his death will be a significant setback for the militia and for Al Qaeda, at least in the short term, said a second U.S. intelligence official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for similar reasons.
"When you look at these kinds of groups and see their regenerative capability, they will find someone else," the official said. "But what they have lost here is someone who did have quite tight links to Al Qaeda, who was a conduit, a facilitator, a veteran fighter who knew the region."
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.