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The Toppled Terrorist; the Death of Ahmed Abdi Godane and Its Impact on Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda Network, and Beyond.


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On September 1st, a United States airstrike near Barawe, in south-central Somalia, ended the life of Ahmed Abdi aw-Muhammad “Godane” (also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair), the 6-year leader, or emir, of the Somali Islamist militant group Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM, also popularly known as Al-Shabaab). The United States Pentagon was quick to call the kill a “major symbolic and operational loss” to the militant group. Amidst frightening reports of the rise of Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, and Boko Haram’s scare tactics in Nigeria, would this blow constitute the beginning of the end for one of the Al-Qaeda network affiliates? And if not the beginning of the end, what is the likely impact on the group in Somalia and beyond?

Godane was one of the original founders of Al-Shabaab and took power of the group sometime between December 2007 and May 2008. As its leader, Godane had international ambitions for Al-Shabaab, linking the Islamist militant group with other likeminded groups in the region and beyond. In his first speech as emir, he announced his allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, reiterating his support to Al-Qaeda in several audio and video messages in the years to follow. In February of 2012, Al-Shabaab formally joined the Al-Qaeda network. Godane praised the advances of Islamist militant groups abroad in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Under his leadership, Al-Shabaab established ties with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), another Al-Qaeda affiliated militant group that operates in Yemen and Saudi-Arabia. Despite being closely aligned to Al-Qaeda, and the unclear relationship between them and IS, Godane expressed his support for IS in Iraq in 2010. In line with his internationalist vision, Godane presented Al-Shabaab as a group to be reckoned with on a global scale, voicing threats to countries supporting the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While he never executed his promised attack on the United States, under his leadership, Al-Shabaab planned and executed countless attacks in Somalia, as well in neighbouring countries including Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti. In 2010, Al-Shabaab executed an attack in Kampala that killed 74 people. In September 2013 Godane publicly claimed the responsibility for the Westgate attack that claimed the lives of 67 people.

To assess the impact of the death of Godane on Al-Shabaab we need to examine the internal politics and dynamics of the group. Since the beginning of his leadership, Godane has been at odds with some of the most senior members of the group, mostly over differences in ideology and direction, which eventually led to internal power struggles, assassinations and marginalization. Contrary to most leading figures in the group, Godane was a member of the northern ‘Isaaq clan’ (sub-clan Arab), which essentially meant that he had no strong clan base within the southern-central Al-Shabaab group. Despite being openly critical of the Somali clan system for being obstructive to unity in the highly fragmented Somali society as well as in the struggle against the Somali Transitional and Federal Governments, and on top of that incompatible with the Al-Qaeda jihadi worldview, Godane was said to have favored his few fellow clansmen on more than one occasion, alienating others. However, as most of the clansmen were beyond the reach of the group, his traditional obligations towards his clansmen were considerably less.

While Godane preferred the internationalist jihadist approach of the likes of Al-Qaeda, and did not permit other Islamist militant groups in Somalia, other senior Al-Shabaab officials resented this direction. Most famously, Godane clashed with senior leaders Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, two senior Al-Shabaab figures from powerful southern-central clans. Robow and some of his supporters openly challenged Godane’s leadership in mid-2013. Aweys publicly accused Godane in 2012 of “monopolizing jihad [in Somalia], globalizing the Somali conflict, [and] assassinate[ing] innocent Somalis”. Allegedly, other reasons for the power struggle included Godane’s favortism towards members of his Isaaq clan and the disagreements on the role of foreign jihadis and the many civilian casualties of attacks. In the beginning of 2013, the internal problems turned violent, which caused prominent Al-Shabaab members to speak out against its leader, leading to Godane claiming victory and Robow and Aweys fleeing from former Al-Shabaab stronghold of Barawe. Godane ordered the killing of dissident prominent members, among them Ibrahim al-Afghani and American-born Omar Shafik Hammami (al-Amriki). Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, said that the “attack was Godane’s way of solidifying his recent quelling of internal dissent and firmly placing the organization as a global jihadist entity”.

Five days after Godane’s death, his successor was announced: the little known former leader of Amniyat (the intelligence unit of the group) and protégé of the former leader, Sheikh “Ahmad Umar” Abu Ubaidah, who hails from the not so powerful Dir clan. An alleged rumor states that the appointment was made through a testament left by Godane. Regarding the future of Al-Shabaab, a lot depends on whether the leadership will accept this appointment, and whether Umar will receive multi-clan, multi-level support within the group. Considering the long-standing differences of opinion on ideology, direction and strategy, as well as the possible appointment of Umar by Godane, it is possible that the internal power struggle that started at the beginning of Godane’s leadership will continue to fester and slowly dismantle the internal working of the group. It is not unthinkable that this could lead to the eventual splintering of Al-Shabaab into smaller warring militant factions. Allegedly Umar has already replaced some of the key commanders with allies of his. Time will tell if he will have the leadership qualities to resolve the internal struggles.

It is probable that the death of Godane will have consequences on multiple levels of the conflict between Al-Shabaab and the Somali National Government backed by AMISOM, as well as Al-Shabaab’s global agenda. Indeed, the death of Godane comes at a time when the group was already weakened, having lost vast strategic territory to joint Somali National Army (SNA)-AMISOM military campaign starting in 2011. It continues to face the persistent and relatively successful push by the joint forces in Operation Indian Ocean. In addition, the group now has to face the ongoing military advances of SNA and AMISOM without experienced leaders such as Godane, al-Afghani and Robow . Most likely the group will continue to lose territory, while continuing to execute guerrilla attacks on soldiers, politicians and civilians. Moreover, the amnesty offered to Al-Shabaab members shortly after Godane’s death has motivated several fighters to leave the group between September and November. As of now it is unclear whether this will be a trend of mere incidents.

On the international stage, the group faces important questions on if and how to proceed within the Al-Qaeda network and how to relate to external Islamist militant groups, most importantly IS. As Stig Jarle Hansen rightfully pointed out in his recent piece, “[a]t least seventy [IS foreign fighters] are Somali according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) […] – these ISIS recruits might otherwise have gone to al-Shabaab. In one sense, ISIS presents itself as the ‘new kids on the block’ new and cool, seen as progressive compared with the old al-Qaeda central.” As for Al-Qaeda, with its diminishing hold in Pakistan (several Pakistani Taliban leaders pledged allegiance to IS in October) and Afghanistan, it is said to be relying more heavily on aligned groups. If this is indeed the case, it would be eminent for Al-Qaeda to keep close ties with groups like Al-Shabaab to retain some of its global power versus IS. However, if Al-Shabaab’s direction changes from a relatively internationalist approach to a more nationalist approach under Umar’s leadership, or if the group follows Boko Haram and switches alliance to IS, it could mean yet another blow to Al-Qaeda.

As for Somalia, it will prove to be important how the Federal government backed by donors will respond in the months to come. It is unthinkable that the armed conflict in Somalia will end solely through military efforts. Concern for security needs to be paired with offering alternatives to would-be Shabaab fighters by developing and strengthening economic opportunities and building reliable government institutions. It is up to the government and donor community to avoid letting this rare opportunity slip.

Written by Suzanne van Hooff. Suzanne conducts quantitative and qualitative research on the conflict between Islamist groups and the Federal Government of Somalia for the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK). Her conflict analysis will be published in HIIK's forthcoming Conflict Barometer 2015.

Written by Suzanne Van Hooff and published on 24-November-2014




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