The Pentagon confirmed today that the U.S. killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of the al-Shabaab insurgent group in Somalia, in an airstrike this week.
U.S. special operations forces targeted Godane in southern Somalia in a Sept. 1 attack using manned aircraft and drones to destroy an encampment and a vehicle. It took several days to confirm initial reports that he died in the attack.
“The United States works in coordination with its friends, allies and partners to counter the regional and global threats posed by violent extremist organizations,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement confirming the mission’s success.
Al-Shabaab, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2008. Godane claimed responsibility for the attack last year on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, in which at least 67 people died. The U.S. has offered a $7 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
“Godane’s removal is a major symbolic and operational loss to the largest al-Qaeda affiliate in Africa and reflects years of painstaking work by our intelligence, military and law enforcement professionals,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
The operational impact on al-Shabaab may be limited, according to Natznet Tesfay, head of sub-Saharan Africa analysis at IHS Country Risk.
“It is highly likely given multiple targeted strikes against al-Shabaab senior leadership that the group has a succession strategy in place, which will lower the likelihood of a power vacuum and succession battle within the group,” Natznet said by e-mail. “Also, given Godane’s recent successful purge of potential rivals, the group is unlikely to split or collapse due to power wrangling or ideological differences.”
Still, President Barack Obama today cited Godane’s death as a message to the leaders of Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, referring to them as ISIL, an acronym from an alternative name for the group.
“We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, the same way that we have gone after al-Qaeda, the same way we have gone after the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, where we released today the fact that we have killed the leader of al-Shabaab in Somalia,” he said at a press conference at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales.
This undated and unlocated picture provided by U.S. website 'Rewards for Justice' shows top al-Shabaab leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane also known as Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed.
Godane, 37, also known as Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed or Abu Zubeyr, was named emir of al-Shabaab in December 2007, according to the United Nations, which listed him as subject to sanctions.
Godane, who was born in Hargeisa in the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, may have been responsible for the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa, in June 2011, according to Austin, Texas-based Stratfor Global Intelligence. The killing was organized after Godane was alerted to a plan by al-Qaeda to have Abdullah Mohammed or other foreign fighters lead al-Shabaab, Stratfor said in a March note.
In June 2013, Godane carried out a purge of dissident leaders to tighten his control over the group, assassinating Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al-Shabaab leader who had criticized Godane’s leadership, according to Stratfor.
‘He was responsible for transitioning the militant group away from Somalia nationalists and more towards extremists that were looking to have wide-scale attacks in the region,’’ according to Ahmed Salim, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence in Dubai.
Godane was among a number of high-ranking al-Shabaab officials who were meeting at Dhaytubako, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest of the capital, Mogadishu, when this week’s attack occurred, Lower Shabelle Governor Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur said in a phone interview Sept. 2.
Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina, said in a phone interview it is unclear who may succeed Godane.
“The death could slow them down,” he said. “They could break up. They could regroup. We are going to learn a lot about the organization in the next few months.”
Menkhaus, who specializes in the Horn of Africa, said Islamic State has drawn many foreign fighters away from al-Shabaab. Successes by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq could embolden al-Shabaab to ramp up it terror activities, he said.
In recent months, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Djibouti that killed a Turkish national and wounded several Western soldiers as well a car bomb at the Mogadishu airport that targeted and killed members of a United Nations convoy, according to the statement.
Al-Shabaab was responsible for twin suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010, that killed more than 70 people, including one American. The group has also been responsible for the assassination of Somali peace activists, international aid workers, numerous civil society figures, and journalists.
Al-Shabaab has suffered losses in Somalia since being forced to withdraw from the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011. Kenyan forces invaded the neighboring country two months later, after accusing the militants of attacking tourists and aid workers.
Kenyan soldiers now form part of an African Union-led force that has been deployed in Somalia since 2007 to try and help stabilize the country, which has been mired in conflict since the ouster of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Most of the 22,000 troops in the force, known as Amisom, come from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.
This month, soldiers captured six towns as part of a new offensive with the Somali army against al-Shabaab, according to Amisom’s website. The militants continue to carry out attacks on Mogadishu, including at least two assaults on the presidential palace in the city this year.