On the night of Monday, September 1, 2014, a U.S. airstrike targeted two vehicles near a wooded area of Sablale district in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, an area used by the Somali militant group al-Shabab to train its military forces. The strike killed Ahmed Godane, the elusive amir of al-Shabab, upon whom the United States had placed a $7 million bounty in June 2012. The U.S. government officially confirmed Godane’s death on September 5, 2014.
Godane’s death, significant in itself, comes at a particularly sensitive time for al-Shabab. The group is facing a renewed offensive, Operation Indian Ocean, by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali federal government that aims to capture Baraawe, the last major port town that the insurgents still control. The internal dynamics within al-Shabab itself remain the subject of intense debate and speculation, although there is little hard, verifiable information about the current state within the group’s multiple leadership tiers, from the top level to the regional and district-level administrators and field commanders. The death of Godane, who only succeeded in consolidating his control of the group by killing or driving out his major critics and potential rivals last summer, has led to renewed predictions that al-Shabab will split into different factions bickering over power and control of the group’s remaining manpower, territories, and resources. Al-Shabab announced Godane’s immediate successor, Ahmad Umar, within a week of his death and a day after the Pentagon confirmed that al-Shabab’s leader had been killed. Known as Abu Ubayda, Umar reportedly played an instrumental leadership role in the purge of dissidents from the group in 2013.
This article examines Godane’s tenure as al-Shabab’s amir, paying particular attention to both the group’s period of expansion, followed by stalemate and beginnings of its decline, the strategic outmaneuvering of his critics and rivals, and the internal purge he and his loyalists enacted in 2013. It finds that Godane was a charismatic and multifaceted leader who demonstrated both organizational capabilities and media savvy, enabling him to oversee al-Shabab’s territorial and governing expansion between 2008 and 2010. His desire for sole power within al-Shabab, however, ultimately shattered the group’s internal cohesion and led a number of founding leaders and prominent members to break ranks and leave. The future of the group after his death will depend on the internal cohesiveness of the post-June 2013 version of al-Shabab.
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