MOGADISHU, Somalia — A senior foreign commander fighting with Shabab Islamic militants was killed in an American drone strike a few miles south of the capital over the weekend, according to Shabab officials. The Shabab officials held a news conference to publicize the attack, identifying the commander as Bilal al-Barjawi, 27, a close associate of a Qaeda leader killed last year in Somalia. They said he was of Lebanese descent and grew up in West London. British authorities denied that he was a British citizen.
One witness said there were two strikes on Saturday afternoon in a Shabab-controlled area near the town of Elasha Biyaha, about eight miles south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where the Shabab have a base. “One hit a car, which I believe held explosives,” said the witness, who gave his name as Osman. Huge explosions were followed by clouds of flames and smoke, witnesses said, and Shabab militants sealed the area around the burning car.
Within hours, a Shabab spokesman, Ali Mohamud Raghe, told reporters, “American drones carried out today’s attack and killed our brother Martyr Bilal al-Barjawi.” He saluted the slain commander, also known as Abu Hafsa, as being among the first foreign jihadists to answer the Shabab’s call for reinforcements, joining them in mid-2006 after having fought in Afghanistan.
Mr. Raghe said that Mr. Barjawi was a close associate of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s leader in East Africa and the mastermind of the American Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Mr. Mohammed was killed in June, in a late-night shootout at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu.
The Guardian reported that Mr. Barjawi’s wife had given birth in a London hospital a few hours before the missile strike, saying that the couple’s relatives suspected that a celebratory telephone conversation between the couple had given away his location. The Guardian also reported that Mr. Berjawi had moved to Britain as a child and held British citizenship until a year ago, when the government revoked it under the 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act.
In a chaotic, impoverished country that has not had a functioning national government for 20 years, the Shabab have managed to take control of large swaths of territory, chopping off hands for what it considers un-Islamic behavior and blocking the delivery of emergency food to famine victims. An African Union mission has struggled for years to try to help the weak central government retain control of the capital, and Kenyan and Eritrean forces have made incursions to try to keep the militants from expanding operations into their territories.
There are believed to be several hundred foreign fighters in Somalia, The A.P. reported, mostly Africans from nearby nations. But more than 40 Americans have joined the insurgency, according to a report from the House Homeland Security Committee, The A.P. said, and around 15 have been killed.
In a separate incident, an American man was reported kidnapped in the central Somalia town of Galkayo on Saturday, and Somali pirates said that some of their number had captured him. Agence France-Presse quoted witnesses near the port of Hobyo, a notorious pirate den to the east of Galkayo, saying that pirates took the hostage to a jungle base near the coast.
Part of Galkayo lies in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, which is relatively stable compared to the rest of Somalia and controlled by forces friendly to the American-backed Somali government; another part is controlled by small clan-based administration called Galmudug. It was not immediately clear which area the kidnapping occurred in, but there have been several such cases in the last few months. Kidnapping for ransom has grown common in Somalia.
The American was near the Galkayo airport on Saturday afternoon when gunmen stopped his car, witnesses said. The American and a Somali with him were beaten, and the American was taken away, The Associated Press reported, citing a Galmudug minister who asked not to be identified.
One witness, Farah Ali, said, the gunmen “headed toward Xiingod, a village east of Galkayo.”
Somali pirates said in interviews that the man had been kidnapped by pirates. A.F.P. quoted an elder in Hobyo, Muhidin Adan, as saying: "There are around 50 heavily armed security forces who tried to stop the pirates after following them yesterday, but now the security forces have stopped tracing because the kidnappers entered the base of the pirates. "The pirates have reached Hobyo now. I don’t think they could be followed anymore."
A staff member at the Embassy Hotel said the American, who also held German citizenship, had gone to the airport to drop off an Indian colleague. The staff member asked not to be identified because he was not supposed to give out information about guests.
A State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said that the department was investigating.
“We are aware of the reports of that kidnapping in northern Somalia," she said, according to The A.P. "We are concerned about the individual’s safety and well-being. We were working with contacts in Kenya and Somalia to ascertain further information.”
“The U.S. condemns kidnapping of any kind and we call for the immediate release of the victim,” she added.