Shabab insurgent group.
Residents in Merca, a seaside town firmly in Shabab hands, said that a foreign military helicopter was flying in low circles overhead on Sunday morning before the attack. The residents said they saw the helicopter coming from the ocean, but they did not see any ships or know what country it belonged to.
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.
The rockets hit “between two houses, and for God’s sake no one has been killed or injured in the attack,” said the Shabab official, who spoke from Merca on the condition of anonymity. “It was in fact a house where Shabab officials were meeting.”
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 Shabab, who have gained a reputation of ruthlessness for stoning adulterers and chopping off hands, control much of Somalia and have drawn increasingly close to Al Qaeda in recent months. At the same time, Somalia’s internationally recognized transitional federal government, which has received tens of millions of dollars of American aid, is struggling to control a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu.
Over the weekend, the government was hit by another potentially damaging blow. Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, a powerful group of moderate Islamists, abruptly quit the government after having signed a power-sharing pact earlier this year.
On Saturday, Sheik Abdullahi Abdirahman Abu Yusuf, a spokesman for Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, announced, “We will not be part of the upcoming government, and we will not have any representatives as well.”
He said that “the government of Somalia is not committed to the defense of the people” and that Ahlu Sunna forces had been the only ones to repel the Shabab. Ahlu Sunna forces have driven the Shabab out of some areas of central Somalia while the transitional government forces have steadily lost territory to the Shabab, and, on many occasions, fled from the front lines instead of fighting.
The United States is now indicating that it may be shifting its strategy on Somalia.
On Friday, Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said that the United States, in addition to supporting the transitional federal government, will now be “pursuing a second track, which we think is also increasingly important, and that is we will work to engage more actively with the governments of Puntland and Somaliland.” (Puntland and Somaliland are two northern regions that are relatively peaceful.)
Mr. Carson added that the United States was also going to “reach out to groups in south central Somalia, groups in local governments, clans and subclans that are opposed to Al Shabab.”