The Complex

Will al-Shabab's New Leader Be as Dangerous as Its Old One?

The death of al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane pushes the counterterrorism fight in Somalia into a new phase, and now U.S. and Somali officials wonder what Godane's possible replacement could mean for the future of the group.

Experts say Godane ruled the group like a tyrant and had killed off several of his likely successors, leaving others at a distance. That raises questions about who might take over for him and how effective that person could be to lead a group that had been seen as an emerging threat in the region.

Hussein Mahmoud Sheikh-Ali, the senior counterterrorism aide to Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, told Foreign Policy on Friday, Sept. 5, that Godane had not created an organization in which a clear successor would be up to the task of replacing him should he be killed.

The two individuals who have already been floated to replace him -- Godane's nominal deputy, Mahad Diriye, and his head of operations, Mahad Karate -- are simply not capable of filling Godane's shoes, Sheikh-Ali said. Neither man is seen as having the education, savvy, or credibility within the organization to pick up where Godane left off.

"Nobody can replace him, and these two people don't have the ability or the capacity to take over this organization going forward," Sheikh-Ali said in a brief interview, adding that Somalia still wants the United States to help his government "finish off" al-Shabab and "end terrorism in Somalia."

U.S. officials, who confirmed Godane's death on Friday, four days after a U.S. airstrike targeted him in the town of Barawe, hailed the militant leader's death, describing it as a significant blow to the organization.

"Removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to al-Shabab," the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in a statement. "Shabab is hugely weakened," Sheikh-Ali said.

The group's future relationship with al Qaeda is now uncertain with Godane gone, and some believe that without him, al-Shabab's ambitions to link to the broader network disappears, potentially leaving al-Shabab to slip to a more localized threat characterized more by criminal behavior and illicit trafficking inside Somalia.

"Al-Shabab's emergence as an al Qaeda affiliate has a lot to do with his leadership," a U.S. official said. "Removing Godane from the battlefield doesn't end the threat from al-Shabab, but there's no question it has dealt the group a major setback."

Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which focuses on U.S. counterterrorism efforts, said there are other al Qaeda loyalists in the group but it's not clear how much power they wield.

He said both Diriye and Karate, who has led the Amniyat, al-Shabab's intelligence and internal security wing, are viable successors and effective leaders.

After days of sifting through various intelligence sources, the Pentagon confirmed that Godane had in fact been killed in Monday's airstrike on a militant position in a rural area of south-central Somalia.

Although there had been widespread confidence that Godane was killed in the strike, U.S. officials were reluctant to confirm that the leader was dead. As foreign intelligence services sought evidence from the site, the U.S. intelligence community was waiting to see whether Godane would start communicating with any of his close associates -- either his wives or senior commanders.

"Everything's gone quiet," a U.S. Defense Department official had told FP on Wednesday.

Previous attempts had Godane resuming communications fairly quickly after being targeted but missed. The defense official said that following a U.S. airstrike on Jan. 26 that killed Sahal Iskudhuq, a senior al-Shabab commander, Godane was up on the Internet within 24 hours.

Immediately after Monday's airstrike in Somalia, Pentagon officials acknowledged the strike and the target -- an unusual move that hinted that American officials were reasonably confident they had succeeded in killing him. After that, though, their confidence seemed to wane. And as recently as Thursday, defense officials said there was no consensus within the intelligence community on whether the strike had actually killed Godane.

Pentagon officials had taken pains to say that no U.S. service members were on the ground near where the strike occurred, which was north of the town of Barawe, where al-Shabab has sought refuge and which is considered a "tough neighborhood" and a perilous place for Western troops. Instead, the United States relied on foreign intelligence services -- mostly Somali -- that had been fighting al-Shabab to relay Godane's status, a defense official told FP.

With little firsthand evidence, the U.S. intelligence community couldn't be sure. Some foreign sources said Godane was dead; others weren't sure.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon provided some of the basic details about the strike. U.S. special operations forces, "working from actionable intelligence" and using manned and unmanned aircraft along with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions, destroyed an encampment and a vehicle, Kirby told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon on Tuesday. No U.S. troops were on the ground in Somalia before or after the strike, he added.

According to the defense official, three people were killed in the attack, not six as initial press reports indicated.

Shane Harris contributed to this report.

Photo by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

The Complex

NATO's Make-or-Break Moment

NATO leaders began meeting in Wales Thursday for a high-stakes conference dedicated to finding ways of countering Russian President Vladimir Putin's ongoing military intervention into Ukraine and open contempt for the post-Cold War order. In the run-up to the summit, NATO leaders have talked tough about punishing Putin to prevent him from moving deeper into Ukraine. But it's not clear whether European allies will back up that tough talk with the financial commitments necessary to rejuvenate a faltering military alliance that Putin has openly mocked as a paper tiger.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been in search of a mission. It has served as an umbrella for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but as its historic job of confronting the Soviet Union faded from view and a series of economic crises battered European economies, few American allies were willing to shoulder their shares of the alliance's financial load.

Now, potential missions are everywhere. Beyond Ukraine, the Islamic State is threatening to expand its fight to Turkey, a NATO member. The alliance is also committed to keeping thousands of troops in Afghanistan, despite the political gamesmanship that has prevented the country from installing a new president. Russia, meanwhile, has tens of thousands of troops massed along its border with Ukraine. It is backing separatists along three fronts, and sent a Russian column into one front late last week. Russia's support of the rebels has given the separatists the upper hand against Ukrainian security forces struggling to hold territory in eastern Ukraine.

Yet even with open combat in a country bordering several NATO members, the summit is likely to be dominated by dollars and cents. For years, top officials in the Bush and Obama administrations have angrily called on Europe to spend more on defense so Washington wouldn't be responsible for the lion's share of the alliance's funding. Taken as a whole, the defense budgets of NATO members are down some 20 percent in the last five years. Only three European NATO members -- the United Kingdom, Greece, and Estonia -- meet the alliance's threshold of spending 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. State Department official, said NATO's response to Putin's aggression needed to include significant new financial commitments from Europe.

"The credibility of the alliance will be measured by the credibility of the pledge" to spend more on defense, Vershbow said. "NATO needs to send a message that we're taking the Russian threat very seriously."

In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the alliance faced "collective military irrelevance" without an increase in European defense spending. In June, as the Ukraine crisis raged on, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that Europe had to stop playing lip service to defense spending and upgrade out-of-date equipment.

For instance, the Polish air force is still flying Russian MiGs, and has to ask Moscow for parts when they break down. Its second warplane, the Su-22, is in need of upgrades in order to be combat-ready.

The inability of fighter jets from individual NATO members to communicate with one another also complicates coordinated operations. This was on display during the war in Afghanistan, where British jets could communicate with U.S. Navy carrier-based fighters, but could not talk with Air Force tankers.

"We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO members," Hagel said during a May speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Russia's actions in Ukraine have made NATO's value abundantly clear, and I know from my frequent conversations with NATO defense ministers that they do not need any convincing on this point. Talking amongst ourselves is no longer good enough."

In the buildup to the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Hagel's call for European nations to spend more. According to World Bank statistics, the British spent 2.3 percent of their GDP on defense in 2013, or more than $60 billion. That was compared to 2.4 percent in both 2012 and 2011. The United States, even with the defense spending cuts mandated as part of a budget deal with the Republican-led Congress, spent 3.8 percent of GDP on defense in 2013, compared to 4.2 in 2012 and 4.6 in 2011.

By comparison, in 2013, Germany only spent 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense, compared with 1.3 percent and 1.4 percent in 2011 and 2012, respectively. France spent 2.2 percent, down from 2.3 percent in the 2011 and 2012 (NATO disputes France's 2013 World Bank number. According to NATO, France only spent 1.9 percent of 2013 GDP on defense).  Italy spent 1.6 percent, a drop from 1.7 percent in the previous two years. The Netherlands spent 1.3 percent of its GDP, down from 1.4 percent over the previous two-year period.

In Germany, home to Europe's largest economy, defense spending went down from $43.8 billion last year to $42.8 billion this year, continuing a downward trend. Since 2012, France has spent $41.2 billion annually on defense, a figure that's been frozen until 2016.

And there's little hope that this will change. Ahead of the conference, Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's defense minister, said that the actual dollar amount a country spends on the military is more important than the percentage of GDP, lowering expectations that the alliance would formally commit to the 2 percent rule.

Meanwhile, Russia is in the midst of a military spending spree. Russian President Vladimir Putin is presiding over what he has said will be a $700 billion military modernization effort over the next six years, though many outside analysts question whether Moscow will actually wind up spending that much money and point out that Russia's armed forces use equipment that dates back to the Cold War. Even as Kiev and Moscow appear to be approaching a cease-fire, Putin's actions inside Ukraine and his increasingly belligerent rhetoric have raised concerns in the former Soviet bloc state about what he plans to do with this new military might.

France is doing its part to slow this buildup. Late Wednesday, Paris suspended the delivery of the first of Mistral-class warship to Russia, despite protests from French leaders who argue that the sale of French arms to Russia is necessary to promote growth. It now plans to send the ships in November.

"The president of the Republic declared that, despite the prospect of a cease-fire, the conditions for France to deliver the first warship are not to date in place," François Hollande's office announced Wednesday.

As of Wednesday evening, NATO is not planning a formal mission in Ukraine. NATO officials have said that they would create a rapid response force of some 4,000 troops, reportedly stationed in Poland, as a counter to Putin. Vershbow and other U.S. officials want NATO to commit more money, but it's unclear whether there is the political will to do that in Europe. The eurozone's GDP fell in the second quarter of 2014, and Germany, the EU's economic engine, is starting to sputter; its economy grew just 0.2 percent in the second quarter, down from 0.7 percent growth in the first quarter.

Vershbow said that without an increase in spending by European allies, the alliance would be undermined. He said that he was confident that the alliance would find its way.

"NATO has shown its adaptability. It has been able to adapt when the security environment has shifted," he said. "Everyone is glad that no one is questioning NATO's existence."

WPA Pool/Getty Images News