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