WASHINGTON – U.S. airstrikes earlier this week killed the leader of the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia, the Pentagon said Friday. President Barack Obama said the death of Ahmed Abdi Godane demonstrated U.S. counterterrorism resolve and was an example of his deliberate approach to dismantling al-Qaida affiliated groups.
The Pentagon’s press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, announced the death in a brief written statement. It took the Pentagon four days to conclusively determine that Godane had not survived Monday’s airstrikes.
Al-Shabab has not publicly confirmed Godane’s death.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud urged al-Shabab militants to renounce violence, saying they have an opportunity to embrace peace following Godane’s death.
“While an extreme hardcore may fight over the leadership of al-Shabab, this is a chance for the majority of members of al-Shabab to change course and reject Godane’s decision to make them the pawns of an international terror campaign,” he said in a statement.
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The Somali president said the U.S. operation was carried out “with the full knowledge and agreement of” his government and that Somalis “greatly value the support of our international allies” in the fight against al-Shabab.
Obama, speaking at the conclusion of a NATO summit in Newport, Wales, told reporters the success against al-Shabab should leave no doubt about his determination to degrade and eventually destroy the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. military announced later Friday that a mix of fighter jets, drones, attack planes and bombers launched four airstrikes Thursday and Friday in northern Iraq, destroying a host of Islamic State targets including an observation post, an armed vehicle and three mortar positions.
Obama faces mounting pressure to take more aggressive military action against the Islamic State, which evolved from an al-Qaida affiliate that sprouted in Iraq in 2004.
“We have been very systematic and methodical in going after these kinds of organizations” that threaten U.S. personnel and the homeland, Obama said. “That deliberation allows us to do it right, but have no doubt: We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the American people.”
U.S. officials had said after the strike on Monday that U.S. special operations forces using manned and drone aircraft had destroyed an encampment and a vehicle using several Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions. But they did not confirm that Godane had been killed until Friday.
The State Department declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in February 2008. The implications of the group’s loss of Godane are unclear.
“The individual who takes his place will live in fear,” said Army Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
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Because Godane had weakened and effectively dismantled the al-Shabab council of leaders known as the shura, a meeting of regional commanders will have to take place to pick his successor, said Matt Bryden, the head of Sahan Research in Nairobi, Kenya. Bryden predicted the meeting will be difficult and dangerous to organize.
Terrorism analyst J.M. Berger predicted a significant splintering between al-Shabab’s domestically focused insurgents and internationally aspiring terrorists.
Abdi Aynte, a Somali analyst who runs a Mogadishu-based think-tank called the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, predicted that Godane’s death “will almost certainly be the beginning of the end of the organization.”
Under Godane’s leadership, he said, al-Shabab had gradually become a guerrilla movement that avoided conventional warfare, tactics that suited it amid mounting military pressure from African Union troops and government forces.
Godane, who was born in 1977 and raised in the town of Hargeisa in the autonomous region of Somaliland, was said to be a quiet boy who was interested in the Qur’an and Islamic studies in his early years. His relatives there described him as “a private man” who was devoted to Islamic teachings at mosques, said Mohamed Hassan, a former senior Somali intelligence official in Somaliland who once was tasked with tracking down Godane over charges the future terror leader stole money when he worked for a local telecommunications company. In Somaliland, he also had been accused of involvement in the murder of foreigners.
Godane is believed to have settled in Mogadishu in 2004, working at local charities before he joined the Islamic Courts Union, al-Shabab’s precursor group that once controlled Mogadishu and many parts of Somalia before it was ousted by Ethiopian forces.