US drone strike in Somalia targeted Islamist leader

CRAIG WHITLOCK
Last updated 17:25, September 3 2014

The Pentagon says that it tried to kill the leader of the militant group al Shabab in an air attack in Somalia, firing several Hellfire missiles and dropping other munitions on a camp on the country's southern coast.

It was unclear whether the target, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, a commander more widely known as Ahmed Abdi Godane, perished or survived Monday's drone strike. The operation marked the most aggressive US military operation in Somalia in nearly a year, and came as the Obama administration was already grappling with security crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Special Operations forces launched the attack after obtaining rare "actionable intelligence" on the whereabouts of Godane, an elusive figure who has survived internal and external threats since taking control of al Shabab in 2007.

Kirby said US drones and other aircraft destroyed a suspected al Shabab compound, as well as a vehicle nearby. In a departure from the Pentagon's usual reluctance to discuss drone operations, he bluntly acknowledged that the intent was to kill Godane, the suspected mastermind of numerous attacks in the region, including the deaths of dozens of people at a Kenyan shopping mall last year.

"The principal target was Mr. Godane," Kirby said. The military, he added, was still assessing the aftermath of the attack and whether it had been successful. But he said Godane's death would be "a very significant blow to their network, to their organization, and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks".

Al Shabab, which means "the Youth" in Arabic, is a jihadist movement affiliated with al Qaeda. Born in Somalia, a chronically unstable country on the Horn of Africa, it has transformed itself from a domestic insurgency into a regional terrorist group that has also carried out attacks in Kenya and Uganda. The network also has cooperated with al Qaeida's franchise in Yemen.

Although Godane has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda, US counterterrorism officials have been divided over how much of a direct threat al Shabab poses to the United States. At a Pentagon news conference, Kirby said the group represented a broad threat beyond Somalia and asserted that it had targeted US personnel in East Africa.

"This action was taken because of the history of terrorist attacks and violence that this organization is responsible for and continues to be responsible for," Kirby said.

A spokesman for al Shabab told the Associated Press that Godane was present at the scene of the strike but would not elaborate on his fate. Pentagon officials said they would be cautious before drawing any definitive conclusions. Several al Qaeda leaders have been reported killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, only to resurface later on, very much alive.

Somali officials said the strike took place near the port city of Barawe, an al Shabab stronghold. Kirby would not identify what specific types of aircraft took part in the operation, but said no US forces were on the ground.

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Nearly one year ago, on October 5, Navy SEALs raided a seaside house in Barawe in an attempt to capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a Kenyan native and senior al Shabab commander. That raid sparked a gunfight but was unsuccessful; US officials said the SEALs withdrew because the risk of harming bystanders had become too great.

The State Department has offered a US$7 million (NZ$8.3) reward for information leading to Godane's arrest. It has identified him as a 37-year-old native of northern Somalia who, among other aliases, goes by the name Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed.

Counterterrorism officials and analysts said that Godane has been a particularly ruthless jihadi leader who has eliminated several rivals within al Shabab, either by killing them or forcing them to go underground.

Hussein Mahmoud Sheikh-Ali, the senior counterterrorism adviser for Somalia's federal government, said Godane was especially ambitious and had tried to position himself as a key leader within the broader al Qaeda movement. He said it would be difficult for al Shabab to replace him simply because he had consolidated so much power and had assassinated so many would-be successors.

"The organization is a one-man organization — Godane and nobody else," Sheikh-Ali said Tuesday during a visit to the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. Under Godane's leadership, he added, al Shabab has "become more efficient and potent in many ways. But on the other hand, they've also become more vulnerable."

Among those reportedly killed last year after losing power struggles with Godane are Omar Hammami, an American-born jihadi known for his propaganda rap videos; and the movement's former deputy leader, Ibrahim al-Afghani.

Sheikh-Ali said the government of Somalia was likewise still trying to confirm Godane's fate. If Godane is dead, Sheikh-Ali said, Somalia's government would move quickly to reach out to less hard-line al Shabab figures in an attempt to reconcile with some factions of the movement.

"His killing would be a game-changer," he said. "They're going to struggle and there's going to be huge opportunity for the government to take advantage."

Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on African security at the Atlantic Council, said Godane was less an ideologue than a fighter, but that "nobody really knows" whether he posed the same kind of direct threat to the United States as other al Qaeda affiliates.

"He's pretty much a hired gun," she said. "If he thought there was power and glory in it, he'd probably kill his mother."

If Godane does turn out to be dead, Bruton said his rivals who have been marginalized or in hiding may seek to reshape al Shabab back into a domestic insurgency. The movement, she said, has lost popular support in Somalia because of its brutal tactics and its embrace of foreign fighters.

"It probably provides an opportunity for the domestic actors to gain ground," she said.

The US military frequently conducts drone surveillance flights over Somalia, but airstrikes and ground raids are relatively uncommon. The Pentagon has a large drone base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which borders Somalia on the Horn of Africa. The US military also flies surveillance drones over Somalia from a base in Ethiopia.

The Pentagon quietly deployed a small team of advisers to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, last October to coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from al Shabab.

The deployment marked the first time regular US troops have been stationed in the war-ravaged country since 1993, when two helicopters were shot down and 18 Americans were killed in the "Black Hawk Down" disaster.

US involvement in Somalia has been building steadily in other ways. US commandos have intermittently conducted raids, although the military has kept their activities cloaked in secrecy. The CIA has played a key role, helping to rebuild Somalia's intelligence service. And the State Department has trained and financed Africa Union troops that now hold sway in Mogadishu and other parts of the country

 - The Washington Post