Drone strike kills senior al-Shabab official in Somalia


A drone strike killed a leader of the militant group al-Shabab in southern Somalia on Saturday, the latest sign of how U.S. military operations in the country are gradually escalating, according to U.S. officials.

Yusef Dheeq, al-Shabab’s head of external operations, died in the attack near the town of Dinsoor, a U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the strike had not been publicly announced by the Pentagon. Dheeq was riding in a vehicle with fellow al-Shabab members, but it was unclear how many others may have been killed, the official said.

The attack is at least the third U.S. military drone strike in Somalia since September, a small but steady increase after years of relative quiet.

In December, Tahlil Abdishakur, whom U.S. officials identified as al-Shabab’s intelligence chief, was killed in a strike while he was riding in a vehicle near the southern town of Saakow.

In September, the group’s overall leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed after U.S. drones and other military aircraft launched an attack on an al-Shabab compound near the southern Somali coast.

Analysts described Godane as a particularly ruthless jihadist who routinely purged al-Shabab’s ranks to enforce loyalty. He had carried a $7 million bounty on his head in the form of a reward posted by the State Department for information leading to his arrest or capture.

Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is a jihadist movement affiliated with al-Qaeda. Born in Somalia, a chronically unstable country on the Horn of Africa, it has transformed itself from a domestic insurgency into a regional terrorist group that has also carried out attacks in Kenya and Uganda. The network also has cooperated with al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen.

The U.S. military frequently conducts drone surveillance flights over Somalia, but airstrikes and ground raids had been relatively uncommon prior to last fall. The Pentagon has a large drone base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which borders Somalia on the Horn of Africa. The U.S. military also flies surveillance drones over Somalia from a base in Ethi­o­pia.

The Pentagon quietly deployed a small team of advisers to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in October 2013 to coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from al-Shabab.

The deployment marked the first time regular U.S. troops had been stationed in the war-ravaged country since 1993, when two helicopters were shot down and 18 Americans were killed in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster.

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