Earlier this week, U.S. Special Forces killed a man U.S. intelligence said was the link between an Islamic militia in Somalia and al-Qaida in Pakistan. But he also had a connection to the U.S. that has not been reported: He was a senior instructor for new al-Shabab recruits, including a handful of young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis.
When FBI agents capture a terrorism suspect, one of the first things they do is pull out mug shots so they can try to identify other possible members of al-Qaida. And that's exactly what happened earlier this year — when some of the young Somali-Americans who trained in Somalia returned to Minneapolis.
Intelligence officials tell NPR that when agents flipped to a picture of one al-Qaida operative, several of the young men said they recognized him.
His name was Salah Ali Nabhan. He's the man American commandos killed in a daylight raid in southern Somalia on Monday.
The Minneapolis boys said they recognized him because he had been one of their trainers in the camps in Somalia — on loan from al-Qaida to boost the training operations of a Somali militia called al-Shabab.
"Usually people like Nabhan are jacks of all trade," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "They are particularly skilled, as Nabhan was, in the fabrication of vehicular bombs, particularly ones used for suicide attacks."
Vehicular bombs, or car bombs, are what landed Nabhan on the FBI's most wanted list. Officials say he rigged up a car bomb in 2002 to blow up an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya, and Americans have been hunting for him for years. A ringleader of an al-Qaida cell in Kenya, he may also have played a role in the East Africa embassy attacks in 1998.
Now the FBI is concerned about Nabhan's Minnesota connection. Agents worry that Nabhan taught Somali-Americans in the camps how to be suicide bombers, and that they might come back and attack in the United States.
It isn't a wild theory. One of the Minneapolis boys who returned from Somalia earlier this year pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in July. His court-appointed attorney said the young man had been recruited by al-Shabab to become a suicide bomber. Another young Minnesotan, Shirwa Ahmed, drove a car bomb into a government compound in northern Somalia last November. He and Nabhan were in the training camps at the same time.
Beyond the Minneapolis connection, there's another reason Nabhan was important. He helped give al-Qaida a foothold in the Horn of Africa. "Al-Qaida's hallmark has always been both opportunistic and talent spotters," Hoffman said. "I think they saw a group that was in a zone that was already rife with instability and chaos," and they wanted to take advantage.
Al-Shabab is a ragtag militia in Somalia that came together originally to fight Ethiopian troops that had invaded Somalia. Now it is focused on overthrowing Somalia's transitional government and setting up an Islamic one in its stead. Nabhan, who has had long-standing ties in Somalia, became the bridge that helped bring al-Shabab and al-Qaida together. His death this week may hobble al-Qaida's efforts in Somalia.
"His elimination is something that will not sever the links between al-Qaida and al-Shabab, but certainly will fray them," Hoffman said.
The operation that unfolded in the Somali desert Monday was the stuff of movies.
US. intelligence officials say Special Forces helicoptered into a remote part of the desert and fired on a convoy of trucks racing across the sands.
When the shooting stopped, officials were able to identify Nabhan's remains. The DNA test results on the others killed in the attack haven't come back yet. U.S. officials said they haven't ruled out that some of the young Minneapolis men might have been among them.