A project tracking drone
deaths in Pakistan

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Saleh al Somali / Abdirizaq Abdi Saleh









Place of origin


Reported status

Alleged militant

Militant affiliation

Al Qaeda



Case study

Senior al Qaeda planner Abdirizaq Abdi Saleh – better known as Saleh al Somali – was described by a diplomat as a ‘lynchpin’ of the organisation’s strategy. He played a key part in moving militants from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to Yemen. 

Believed to have been born in Somalia, al Somali rose through the ranks of al Qaeda’s propaganda operations and became involved in planning operations for the terrorist group. He also worked with Western recruits when they arrived in the tribal areas of western Pakistan for preliminary training, press reports claimed. 

Al Somali was said to have been responsible for al Qaeda’s foreign relations and, according to a US counterterrorism official, he ‘maintained connections to other Pakistan-based extremists’. He was described as a contact point with al Shabaab, the militant group that has taken over large tracts of his native Somalia. An anonymous US official also said he was ‘probably responsible’ for planning and carrying out attacks in the US and Europe. An Arab diplomat described him as ‘a lynchpin in al Qaeda’s well-considered new strategy’. 

Al Somali was on the CIA’s list of the top 20 al Qaeda targets by the time he died in 2009, according to an official familiar with the list. 

According to the Civil Effort In Fighting International Terrorism, a research organisation Saleh al Somali was probably another alias for Abu Hafez (or Abu Hafiz), the chief of al Qaeda’s external special operations unit, responsible for planning al Qaeda’s attacks in the international arena, including the Bryant Neal Vinas case in Belgium. Reports suggest Abu Hafez personally supervised preparations of al Qaeda’s global attacks from the earliest stages of recruitment.

An anonymous US official told reporters al Somali translated the strategic guidance he took from al Qaeda’s ‘top leadership’ into ‘operational blueprints for prospective terrorist attacks’.

In July 2010 the US Department of Justice (DoJ) named al Somali along with Rashid Rauf and Adnan El Shukrijumah (aka Hamad) as one of the planners of a plot to detonate bombs on the New York subway. The cell responsible was also ‘directly related’ to a separate terrorist plot against the UK. The DoJ said the three men were ‘then-leaders of al-Qaeda’s “external operations” program dedicated to terrorist attacks in the United States and other Western countries’.

Intelligence reports revealed after al Somali’s death suggested that he travelled to Yemen the previous year to assess the situation there.

On December 8 2009, a drone killed al Somali and two other alleged militants. An unnamed Pakistani security official told CBS News: ‘Saleh al Somali’s killing will be a major setback for an outfit which does not necessarily document all of its operational details. In this shady world, individuals keep part of the information to themselves, which means that if they vanish, there is a gap.’

On December 30 2009, militants launched a suicide attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing six agents, the Agency’s biggest single loss of life since the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in which eight CIA operatives died. Al Qaeda’s third-in-command, Sheikh Mustafa Abu al Yazid, announced that the strike was to avenge the deaths of al Somali, Baitullah Mehsud and Abdullah Saeed al Libi.

Sources and Citations

US counterterrorism official (China Daily, CNN, New York Times); senior Pakistani security offiicials and Arab diplomats in Pakistan (CBS News); intelligence officials (AFP)


Died 08/12/2009

Details of the strike

About the project

CIA drone strikes have killed over 2,500 people in Pakistan; many are described as militants, but some are civilians. This is a record of those who have died in these attacks.

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Covert drone war

A project by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism tracking drone strikes and other covert US actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

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The Bureau is a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. It pursues in-depth journalism that is of public benefit.

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