Somalia: Mystery Helicopter Attack on al Shabab

On Sunday an unknown helicopter fired on a house in Merca, Somalia in an apparent strike on al Shabab. The press is busy speculating about whose helicopter it was. The US is a logical candidate, but no one who knows is talking. The case is far from certain:

A senior Pentagon official and a senior military official, both in Washington, said late Sunday that there were no American aircraft in the area and no American involvement in the attack. In fact, it would be highly unlikely for a single American helicopter gunship to carry out such an attack without one or more other aircraft nearby.

Last year, American commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a wanted agent of Al Qaeda, in a helicopter raid not far from Merca. That swath of southern Somalia is widely believed to be a sanctuary for several wanted terrorists and insurgent leaders, including Omar Hammami, an American militant originally from Alabama who has steadily risen up the Shabab ranks and become one of the organization’s top field commanders.

The AP has other denials of responsibility:

The U.S. military’s Special Operations Command Africa and its conventional counterpart, U.S. Africa Command, said they had no involvement, as did a spokesman for the EU Naval Force, an anti-piracy unit that has military forces off the east coast of Somalia. African Union troops also said they weren’t behind the exchange.

“I can tell you we don’t have any troops in that vicinity at all. We are surprised as you to be honest,” said Maj. Bryan Purtell, the spokesman for the Germany-based Special Operations Command Africa.

The EU NavFor spokesman, Lt. Col. Per Klingvall, said: “We’re not operating on the Somali coast. We’re just operating out on the waters.”

[…]Somali Minister of Information Abdirahman Omar Osman declined to immediately comment, and the spokesman for the 7,100 African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu said the AU force was not responsible.

The BBC adds a potential motives for the denials:

BBC East Africa correspondent Will Ross says if this was a failed attack on senior al-Shabab officials, perhaps it is not surprising that no-one is claiming to have carried out the mission.

The attack, failed or not, caused a lot of uproar in Merca:

According to one Shabab official, the helicopter’s rockets narrowly missed killing several leaders of the group.

Immediately after the attack, the group started blocking the roads in and outside the town and started investigations. They also seized cellphones from local reporters in an effort to ensure that the information did not go beyond Merca, according to residents.

If the strike failed, one has to ask whether it was worth the cost – a flurry of speculation that must feel uncomfortable to the strike’s authors, and another opportunity for al Shabab to flex muscle in its area. Likely the strike will also allow al Shabab to invoke the threat of foreign intervention that seems to bind and motivate many of its followers.

I’ll update with more information as it becomes available.

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