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A nation must think before it acts.
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:
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:
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.