The Beginning of the End for al-Shabaab?

Cover Story

Andrews Atta-Asamoah finds out if the ‘hell-firing’ of Ahmed Abdi Godane in Somalia by the US has dealt a significant blow to the al-Shabaab ‘network, their organisation, and …to their ability to conduct terrorists attacks’, as stated by Pentagon Press Secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby

In early September 2014, American hellfire missiles and laser-guided ammunition hit Ahmed Abdi al-Muhammad, popularly known as Ahmed Abdi Godane, one of Africa’s most feared and reclusive jihadists in Barawe, an area south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. According to the US, the operation was carried out in conjunction with partners as part of ‘efforts to detect, deter, disrupt and defeat violent extremists who threaten progress in the region, as well as threaten to conduct terrorist attacks against innocent people around the world.’1 Prior to this operation, the leadership of the al- Qaeda-linked group had been a target of recent US operations in Somalia, including an October 2013 daring navy seal raid on a seaside house aimed at capturing Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a senior commander of the group.

Godane remained a preferred target because of his prominent role in the leadership of al-Shabaab as well as masterminding several terrorist attacks in Somalia and beyond. These had earned him a place on the US State Department’s list of most wanted terrorists with a $7 million reward on his head. Notwithstanding, the group remained dismissive of Western capacity to wreck havoc in their ranks. In 2012, for instance, the group’s fundraiser, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, sarcastically placed a bounty of 10 camels for information leading to the location of President Obama in response to America’s offer of millions of dollars as bounty for information on seven of their leaders.

Al-Shabaab under Godane

Trained in Afghanistan, Godane rose from third in command of al-Shabaab during the era of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) to the position of ‘emir’ of the group in May 2008, after a similar US airstrike killed Aden Hashi Ayrow, his predecessor. From there, the 31-year-old embarked on a transformation of the group from one predominantly pre-occupied with the internal affairs of Somalia into an active international extremist group attracting regional and international recruits, with an extensive international network of sympathisers and formidable financial base.

He also succeeded in turning al-Shabaab into a territory-holding fighting force dreaded for their ability to hit strategic Somali government targets as well as soft spots in the East and Horn of Africa region. Consequently, al-Shabaab became noted for high profile attacks in Kampala, Nairobi and Djibouti through which hundreds of innocent lives were lost.

Godane achieved these by exploiting the myth surrounding his reclusive character and charisma, adopting guerrilla tactics, embarking on international recruitments, practicing proactive communication through the Internet, strategic partnership with al-Qaida and holding strategic territories. By taxing businesses in the port city of Kismayo, for instance, the latter strategy propped al-Shabaab by complementing its international source of funds as it gradually morphed into a deadly jihadi group in the region.

In the midst of the transformation, however, Emir Godane increased his grip on power. He eliminated all dissenting voices in his Council (the Shura) and concentrated power around himself. He also elevated the special operations division, the amneyats, under his leadership and equipped them with enormous operational capacity. Made up of a reconnaissance, kill and suicide units, the operations of the amneyats during Godane’s leadership became feared for their extensive intelligence gathering prowess and deadly precision.

This significant transformation of the group under the leadership of Godane made it effective in its battle against the Somali government, but principally placed him as the fulcrum around which the group revolved and evolved. His charisma, vision and operational experiences defined the nature and direction of al-Shabaab. His sudden demise is, therefore, as significant as removing the central pillar around which the jihadist infrastructure in Somalia is anchored.

Significance of his Death

As a result, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby observed about his demise that it would be “a significant blow to their network, to their organisation, and…to their ability to conduct terrorist attacks.” 2 Indeed, it goes without saying that given Godane’s central role in al-Shabaab, his sudden demise will significantly impact the group. This is precisely because he concentrated a great deal of power around himself, cleansed the leadership of dissenting views and did not seem to have any elaborate succession plan.

As such, apart from the confusion that is anticipated by the deterrence effect of his ‘hell-firing’ by the US, many believe that because Godane concentrated too much power around himself, and virtually remained the key vision-bearer of the group, his sudden demise will lead to a weakening of the vision and direction of al-Shabaab. Others argue that following his exit; it will be easier for moderate elements in the group to consider government amnesty, without fear of reprisals from the dreaded Godane. It is also believed that in the absence of a named successor, his passing might be the basis for internal squabble and rifts leading to a weakening and possible demise of al-Shabaab.

Future Prospects

Whilst the above are broadly positive anticipations within the collective quest for peace in Somalia and the fight against terror across the world, three key factors will have to be taken into consideration in determining what the future holds for al-Shabaab. First, are they capable of sustaining their support base? Do they still have operational capacity? What is their strength relative to that of the Somali government?

Al-Shabaab’s strength is a factor of its ability to recruit domestically and externally, keep territories, sustain a financial base and maintain an agile military strategy. So far, the group is increasingly losing a great deal of territorial control and key leaders to the firepower of various joint government – AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) operations. This has had a major impact on its tactical superiority and funding base.

Notwithstanding, the group still controls considerable swathes of territories from where it plans attacks on government targets in major cities and towns currently held by AMISOM and government forces. With the renewed joint-operations of AMISOM and Somali forces, al-Shabaab was gradually succumbing to pressure even before Godane’s death. There is no indication that this trend will change, given the commitment of regional and international partners to the fight against terror in Somalia.

However, the group’s recruitment capacity, which is a factor of the attractiveness of jihadism across the world and various domestic factors, particularly youth unemployment; and aggressive communication strategies on the Internet will continue to sell both in Somalia and in the region. This implies that despite the streams of defections to government, allied groups such as the Muslim Youth Council in Kenya, which have continued to recruit for the group, will be key variables in understanding the extent to which al-Shabaab will be able to keep swelling its ranks with footsoldiers. Continuous supply of fighters invariably implies resilience and capacity to remain relevant in the political and security matrix of Somalia, and the region at large.

Operationally, al-Shabaab will undoubtedly not be as strong as during Godane’s time; this is because his little known successor, Abu Ubaidah, is not as experienced as him and, if at all, his operational dynamism will be different from Godane. Despite being little known, many Somalis agree that Ubaidah’s charisma is never equal to that of Godane and his organisational capacities are far short. Therefore, despite the fact that the group avoided the anticipated power struggle by naming him, they will be saddled with the inability of the new leader to measure up to Godane’s capacities. Already there are reports in Somali media pointing to early indications of overtures to elements that have left the group to re-join. Apart from indicating a shift in strategy, there is every indication that the likes of Mukhtar Robow, the group’s spokesperson now on the run, will find it difficult to re-join and, if at all he does, might not have the support of his clan constituency.

But does this mean the group is incapable of more terror operations? Emphatically no! It is still not clear whether influential amneyat commander Mahad Mohamed Ali, also known as Karate died with Godane in the airstrikes. If not, together with others such as Ikrima, who supposedly planned the Westgate attacks, there are people capable of still wrecking enormous havoc against the weak Somalia and regional states.

This is particularly more so because the Somali government, despite commendable strides, is still weak. Relative to al-Shabaab, there is every indication that the Islamist group still has enough capacity relative to the government to remain relevant in the political and security affairs of the country for a long time. This is because al-Shabaab’s actual strength should also be seen in its relative sense to pro-government actors. In other words, al-Shabaab may be weak in comparison with the capacity they had in the past as well as in relation to the agility of the AMISOM; but not weak in relation to the weak Somali government, and the huge internal vulnerabilities of countries like Djibouti, Burundi, Kenya and Uganda with substantial al-Shabaab sleeper cells and allies.

Cautious Optimism

Godane’s death is a big blow in many ways to the future positioning of al-Shabaab in the goings-on in Somalia. It will certainly slow the group down and change it in many ways. But there is more to be cautious about the unknowns and early celebrations. This is because the group still has enough strength and resources to sustain their terror campaign going forward. Even in the short-to-medium term, there is even a danger that the group would be more deadly because it is practically wounded and might want to re-establish itself. Therefore, sustaining the two-pronged approach of military action and amnesty for defecting elements is laudable in arresting the reach of the group.



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Author

Andrews Atta-Asamoah

Andrews Atta-Asamoah is a senior researcher in the conflict prevention and risk analysis division of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Pretoria, South Africa. He may be reached at aasamoah@issafrica.org.

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    References

    1 CNN, “U.S. official: Attack targets Al-Shabaab leader, but his fate is unknown,” 3 September 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/02/world/africa/somalia-us-operation/, accessed 25 September 2014.

    2 CNN, “U.S. official: Attack targets Al-Shabaab leader, but his fate is unknown,” 3 September 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/02/world/africa/somalia-us-operation/, accessed 25 September 2014.

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