Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Potential Implications of U.S. killing al Shabaab’s Leader In Somalia – Ahmed Godane

Potential Implications of U.S. killing al Shabaab’s Leader In Somalia – Ahmed Godane

Yesterday, after a long pause in overt counterterrorism in Somalia, the U.S. launched a drone strike near Barawe aimed at a convoy. Separate reports indicate four missiles killed up to six militants; one of whom may be al Shabaab’s notorious leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Mukhtar abu Zubayr).

As al Shabaab’s emir, Godane officially merged the terror group with al Qaeda, swearing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Since this merger though, al Shabaab’s trajectory under Godane’s leadership has been in decline with the group fracturing and shrinking over the past two years.  Despite his corrosive leadership, Godane maintained his grip on al Shabaab, continued to execute devastating terrorist attacks against a fragile Somali government and has successfully spread jihadist inspiration and terror attacks to nearby Kenya highlighted by last year’s spectacular attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.  If Godane was killed by the U.S. drone strike (still an ‘if’), his death would likely have a significant impact on Somalia, the Horn of Africa and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s remaining adherents in the Horn of Africa. 

Potential Impacts of Godane’s Death on Somalia 

Godane, even by al Qaeda’s standards, demonstrated extreme levels of ruthless killing and excessive violence, alienating allied clan leaders and the local populace.  By some accounts, Godane forced the merger with al Qaeda to assert his dominance over what has always been a fractious al Shabaab.  Since February 2012, Shabaab has fractured and been pushed into the hinterlands of South Central Somalia.  Hassan Dahir Aweys, a stalwart of Islamism in Somalia, and Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a Godane competitor for al Shabaab’s crown, both broke ranks with Godane over his excessive violence and passion for al Qaeda’s global agenda over the more important local objectives of the clannish al Shabaab.  Since breaking ranks, Robow’s militias have engaged in open combat with Godane’s al Shabaab. 

Even more revealing of Godane’s character has been his murderous repression of dissenters.  Under Godane, Shabaab took a preference for local Somali fighters vis-à-vis foreign fighters — namely, Omar Hammami an American recruit from Alabama.  But then Hammami vocally broke ranks with Shabaab. The Hammami episode revealed intense dissension in the ranks eroding Godane’s support and Shabaab’s foreign fighter flow.  The Godane-Hammami debate led to Shabaab pursuing a year and half long manhunt ending in the murder of Hammami at the hands of Godane’s henchmen.  Godane’s ruthless side was further revealed by his murder of his own long-time aide and friend Ibrahim al-Afghani, a well-respected veteran and founding member of Shabaab,

Shabaab’s fractures and Godane’s elimination of dissenters created a Shabaab governance structure built on fear.  Godane ruled with an iron fist, and thus his death will/would have a significant impact on al Shabaab and the insurgency plaguing the country’s fragile new government.  I suspect, if Godane were killed, to see a case study in Somalia of how leadership decapitation as a counterterrorism tactic can have a major impact.  Somalia in general, and Shabaab in particular, presents a situation where clan leaders have an outsized sway in the direction of their group; leaders trump ideology. 

Here are several considerations if we find out that Godane was killed in Somalia yesterday:

  • When feared leaders die, fractures happen quickly and dynamically – Godane kept a close eye on his enemies and a closer eye on his subordinates through a dominating internal intelligence arm.  I suspect many of Godane’s lieutenants already had plans of their own should Godane die or they remove him via a coup.  My estimate would be the most hard core of Godane’s adherents will break off and form a particularly violent element of al Shabaab.  I’d also estimate that there will be a separate less committed faction of Shabaab that will break away and look to defect, setting up deals with the Somalia government – a positive sign.  Whatever happens, I would estimate major changes in the next month in terms of Shabaab loyalties with fractures emerging across clan and sub-clan lines. 
  • Robow comes out stronger amongst Somalia’s jihadists– If Godane is out of the picture, I suspect Robow will be strengthened and can consolidate some of his power in Bay and Bakool provinces of Somalia.  The larger question is whether Robow might look to settle with the Somali government.  Always more of a local jihadist leader rather than a globalist, Robow might be content to rule his own turf in Somalia’s interior if the Somali government and allied forces grant him a settlement – a tricky task seeing as how the U.S. has designated Robow a “Foreign Terrorist”.
  • An opportunity for the new Somali government – While we might expect some immediate retaliatory attacks by Shabaab loyalists on Somali government targets and international groups, I suspect Godane’s death might present an opportunity to create more truces with local clans ostensibly forced into Shabaab allegiance under Godane. 

Potential Impacts of Godane’s Death on the Horn of Africa  

If Godane were killed, I imagine there would be several regional implications as well:

  • Will jihadist affiliates in Kenya and Tanzania crumble or break out? – As Shabaab grew weaker in Somalia, Godane was surprisingly successful at spreading his influence to disenfranchised Muslim populations along Kenya’s coast, amongst Nairobi’s Somali slums and into northern Tanzania.  In one sense, Godane’s death might bring the fragmentation and dissolving of emerging jihadist elements in the Horn of Africa like al-Hijra.  Or conversely, maybe these young and now disconnected jihadist groups will be freed of Godane’s control to pursue disorganized but more frequent violence.  In either case, I expect Godane’s death will impact jihadist extremism through the Horn of Africa. 
  • Experienced and dangerous foreign fighters on the loose – With Godane dead, al Shahaab’s deadly external operations forces might be looking to either retaliate, relocate or both.  As seen by the successful and well-planned attack on the Westgate Mall last year and Harun Fazul’s interrupted plans to conduct an al Qaeda attack on a hotel in London, Shabaab has a proven capability to attack outside Somalia and hit Westerners.  Key Shabaab foreign fighters like Ikrima, Karate and the under discussed but important American Jehad Mostafa have a proven track record for delivering attacks and detecting their next moves will be crucial.  I suspect they will either wreak havoc by accelerating operations they already have in motion, or will rapidly move to a new battlefield and affiliate if they believe their Somalia safe haven is compromised. The closest option for their refuge would be al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, for whom Shabaab has a proven relationship, or if they seek a more relevant home they could try to infiltrate into Syria’s jihadist enclaves.  In all circumstances, keeping tabs on Shabaab’s Western foreign fighters will be crucial.

Potential Impacts of Godane’s Death on the al Qaeda versus ISIS battle 

Will Godane’s death be a seminal moment in the ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda versus ISIS battle?

Finally, and probably most interesting, Godane represents one of the few remaining outspoken loyalists to Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda.  But, young jihadists are clearly more excited about ISIS and there have been recent reports of Somalis showing up to pursue jihad in Syria.  If Godane is dead, will Shabaab’s new leader swear allegiance to Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, to abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS, or will he pursue an independent track for Shabaab in Somalia independent of today’s jihadi politics? 

Again, these implications will only matter if it turns out that Godane is in fact dead.  Godane may have survived this latest drone strike; it’s quite possible given there are hardly any pictures of this secretive leader – he’s the terrorist equivalent of the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the movie The Princess Bride.  However, these considerations might be informative for Godane’s future death if he turns out to be alive. Godane’s death now or in the near future is likely considering he lives in Somalia and has many enemies, both foreign and domestic.