NAIROBI, Kenya — The al-Qaida mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was killed last week at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu by Somali forces who didn't immediately realize he was the most-wanted man in East Africa, officials said Saturday.
The death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed — a man who topped the FBI's most-wanted list for nearly 13 years — is the third major strike in six weeks against the worldwide terror group that was headed by Osama bin Laden until he was killed by U.S. forces 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, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Most of the dead were Kenyans. Twelve Americans also died.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who was on a visit to Tanzania on Saturday as Somali officials confirmed Mohammed's death — called the killing a "significant blow to al-Qaida, 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," Clinton said.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan called Mohammed's death "another huge setback to al-Qaida and its extremist allies, and provides a measure of justice to so many who lost loved ones."
Mohammed was killed Tuesday but was carrying a South African passport, so Somali officials didn't immediately realize who he was. The body was even buried. Officials later exhumed it.
"We've compared the pictures of the body to his old pictures," said Abdifatah Abdinur, a spokesman for Somalia's minister of information. "They are the same. It is confirmed. He is the man and he is dead. The man who died is Fazul Abdullah."
The New York Times reported that Somali officials said DNA tests carried out in Kenya "by our friends" — suggesting the CIA, which has been working covertly in Somalia for years — also confirmed Mohammed's identity.
Mohammed, a native of the Comoros Islands, was carrying sophisticated weapons, maps, other operational materials and tens of thousands of dollars when he was killed, Information Minister Abdulkareem Jama said. 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-Qaida operations in East Africa. They have shown their effectiveness," he said.
Earlier in the week, a Somali security officer had described to the Associated Press the deaths of two men in Mogadishu, one of whom is now believed to have been Mohammed.
The security official, Osman Nur Diriye, said that two men riding in a luxury car pulled up to a government-run checkpoint Tuesday night. After security forces found a pistol on one of the men, gunfire was exchanged. Diriye said a Somali and a man believed to be South African died. The man identified as a South African is now believed to have been Mohammed, spokesman Abdinur said.
Gen. Abdikarim Yusuf Dhagabadan, Somalia's deputy army chief, said officials at first did not know who the dead man was.
"We buried him," he said. "But soon after checking his documents, (we) exhumed his body and took his pictures and DNA. Then we had learned that he was the man wanted by the U.S. authorities."
Mohammed's death is the third major blow against al-Qaida in the last six weeks. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2 at his hideout in Pakistan. Just a month later, Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaida leader sought in the 2008 Mumbai siege and rumored to be a long-shot choice to succeed bin Laden, was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan.
The strike against Kashmiri was not the direct result of intelligence material seized from the bin Laden compound, U.S. and Pakistan officials say. If the account of the security checkpoint killing is confirmed, it would appear Mohammed's death is also not the result of new intelligence.
Dhagabadan, the Somali 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 the Somali army."
Edith Bartley, whose father and brother were killed in the embassy bombing in Kenya, said the family was "extremely, extremely pleased" to hear the news.
"We're coming up on the 13th anniversary of the embassy bombing and this individual was part of the original indictment in the first al-Qaida trial in 2001, so it's long overdue," said Bartley, who lives in Bowie, Md.