US Monday air strikes in Somali were aimed at the dreaded Al Shabaab supreme commander Abu-Zubayr, better known as
Casualties were reported, but uncertainty hangs over the fate of Godane.
If confirmed, Godane’s death would be a major blow for the Shabaab.
Washington has carried out a series of drone missile strikes in the past, including attacks reportedly targeting Godane.
The Pentagon confirmed an “operation” was carried out on Monday against the hardline militia, and that it was “assessing the results”.
“The Americans carried out a major air strike targeting a gathering by senior Al-Shabaab officials, including their leader Abu-Zubayr,” said Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor for southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region.
“We are assessing the results of the operation,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
Godane is listed by the US State Department as one of the world’s eight top terror fugitives.
$7 million reward
The Shabaab refused to comment on reports Godane had been killed.
“Let the Americans say that they have killed Shabaab’s leader,” a senior Shabaab official told AFP on condition of anonymity. “So far the Americans just gave us rumours.”
Media reports later Tuesday, however, quoted a Shabaab saying it was unlikely Godane was hit as he avoided the coast and never travelled in a convoy. The strike targeted a targeted a convoy of three lorries and smaller vehicles. Others, quoting unnamed sources in the group, said Al-Shabab acknowledged that Godane was in one of the vehicles.
The air strike comes days after African Union (AU) troops AMISOM and government forces launched “Operation Indian Ocean”, a major offensive aimed at seizing key ports from the Islamist rebels and cutting off one of their key sources of revenue—multi-million dollar exports of charcoal.
“They were meeting to discuss the current offensive in the region,” Nur said. “There were casualties inflicted on the militants, but we don’t have details so far.”
Nur said the strike hit a Shabaab hideout used as a training camp for suicide bombers a in remote village of the Lower Shabelle region, south of the capital Mogadishu—the seat of Somalia’s internationally-backed but fragile government.
Somali Foreign Minister Abdirahman Dualeh Beileh, speaking at an African Union summit meeting on terrorism in Nairobi, said the government was “still waiting for information” on the strike.
African leaders at the meeting agreed to collaborate in intelligence gathering and mobilise resources to fight terrorism and violent extremism on the continent.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan said acts of terror by Boko Haram and others who share their ideology were the biggest threat to regional stability.
On Saturday the AU mission in Somalia, AMISOM, said it had captured the town of Bulomarer, some 160 kilometres (100 miles) southwest of Mogadishu.
The town was the scene of an attempted raid by French commandos in January 2013 to free an intelligence agent being held hostage. The bid failed and resulted in the death of two members of the French Special Forces as well as the hostage.
AMISOM and Somali government troops were also seen on roads towards Barawe, the last major port held by the hardline Islamists.
US Special Forces in October launched an attack on a house in Barawe targeting a top Shabaab commander, but were fought off with several US Navy SEALS believed to have been wounded.
Godane, 37, who reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, took over the leadership of the Shabaab in 2008 after then chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile strike.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognised Godane as the head of the “mujahedeen” in East Africa, although letters released after Osama bin Laden’s death show the late Saudi Islamist leader had lower regard for the Somali’s abilities.
He is included in a third category of men on whom information warrants a $7-million (5.35-million-euro) reward from the US, alongside Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader, but under the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, for whom a tip is worth up to $10 million, and Zawahiri, who fetches $25 million.
‘A major blow’
“If confirmed, the death of Ahmed Godane could deal a major blow to Al-Shabaab, and could be the beginning of the end,” said Abdi Aynte, who heads the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute think tank.
“The irony is that Godane killed (his) would-be obvious successor, Ibrahim al-Afghani, in a major internal rift last year,” Aynte added, saying Godane had structured the Shabaab “to bury the organisation with him”.
Clint Watts, fellow of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said if Godane had been killed it would have a “significant impact” on the Shabaab, with the force likely to splinter.
The Shabaab are fighting to topple the government, and regularly launch attacks against state targets, as well as in neighbouring countries that contribute to the AU force.