NAIROBI — The Al Qaeda mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was killed this week at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu by Somali forces who did not immediately realize they had killed the most-wanted man in East Africa, officials said yesterday.
The death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who topped the FBI’s most-wanted list for nearly 13 years, is the third major strike in six weeks against the worldwide terrorist group that was headed by Osama bin Laden until his death last month.
Mohammed had a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombings. The blasts killed 224 people in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, combined. Most of the dead were Kenyans. Twelve Americans also died.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was on a visit to Tanzania yesterday as Somali officials confirmed Mohammed’s death, called the killing a “significant blow to Al Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa.
“It is a just end for a terrorist who brought so much death and pain to so many innocents in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and elsewhere — Tanzanians, Kenyans, Somalis, and our own embassy personnel,’’ she said.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said it was “another huge setback to Al Qaeda and its extremist allies.’’
Mohammed was killed Tuesday; he was carrying a South African passport, so Somali officials didn’t realize who he was. The body was buried. Officials later exhumed it.
“We’ve compared the pictures of the body to his old pictures,’’ said a spokesman for Somalia’s minister of information, Abdifatah Abdinur. “They are the same. It is confirmed.’’
Mohammed, a native of the Comoros Islands, was carrying sophisticated weapons, maps, other operational materials as well as tens of thousands of dollars when he was killed, said Abdulkareem Jama, the information minister.
Family pictures and correspondence with other militants were also found, he said. The money, equipment, and personal effects made officials take a second look at the death, he said.
“We congratulate our army for killing the head of Al Qaeda operations in East Africa. They have shown their effectiveness,’’ he said.
Mohammed’s death is the third major blow against Al Qaeda in the last six weeks. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2 at his home in Pakistan. Just a month later, Ilyas Kashmiri, an Al Qaeda leader sought in the 2008 Mumbai siege and rumored to be a long shot choice to succeed bin Laden, was reportedly killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan.
The strike against Kashmiri was not the direct result of intelligence material seized from the bin Laden compound, US and Pakistan officials say. If the account of the security checkpoint killing is confirmed, it would appear that Mohammed’s death is also not the result of new intelligence.
General Abdikarim Yusuf Dhagabadan, Somalia’s deputy army chief, described the death as “similar to Osama bin Laden’s.’’
“He was worse to us than bin Laden,’’ he said. “It is a victory for the world. It is a victory for Somali army.’’
Thousands of people were wounded when a pickup truck rigged as a bomb exploded outside the four-story US Embassy building in downtown Nairobi. Within minutes, another bomb shattered the US mission in Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
The State Department has since vastly increased security at embassies.
Another man suspected of involvement in the embassy bombings, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, was killed in Somalia in a 2009 US raid.