THERE is intense speculation in Somalia and beyond about whether a US drone strike on an Al-Shabaab convoy near the southern Somali coastal town of Barawe on Monday, September 1, killed the Somali militant group’s Emir (supreme leader) Ahmed Abdi Godane.
The Americans are hedging, and Somali intelligence and African Union sources in Mogadishu suggested to Mail & Guardian Africa that Godane survived the attack. However, were it to turn out that the Americans indeed got the Shabaab chief, it would be a big blow for the hardline factions within Al-Shabaab, and, potentially, likely to trigger a power struggle and further fragmentation.
But the jury is out on whether it marks a turning point in the struggle against militant jihadism in Somalia and the Horn, as many hope.
If the recent history of Islamist militancy and jihadism is any guide, the likelihood of a more militant leadership emerging followed by an upsurge in jihadi violence inside Somalia and East Africa should not be discounted.
Al-Shabaab’s evolution since 2006 has been one of progressive radicalisation, and every major setback has only served to make it more violent and entrench the power of the hardcore jihadists.
Could Godane’s death, if confirmed, catalyse further radicalisation and lead to the emergence of a more deadly Al-Shabaab mutant?
That is the fear of many, but there is also dim hope that the combination of renewed military pressure and the death of Godane may create the right context for the vast majority of Al-Shabaab’s non-ideological combatants to surrender.
Operation Indian Ocean
An ambitious military campaign by the 22,000-strong AMISOM troops and the Somali National Army code-named “Operation Indian Ocean” has been under way in central and southern Somalia in the last one month.
Sources have told Mail &Guardian Africa that he new offensive is “qualitatively different and better coordinated”, with US Special Forces providing crucial logistical support as well as aerial surveillance and satellite intelligence to the African troops.
The joint forces are fighting on multiple fronts and a string of significant towns and villages, such as Tayeglow, Buulo Marer, Goolweyn and Jalaqsi have been recovered from Al-Shabaab.
AMISOM and Somali Army sources say a key strategic objective of the new campaign in the southern axis is to retake the coastal town of Barawe, the last remaining major Al-Shabaab bastion in southern Somalia.
The US drone strike on Monday may have been based on “actionable intelligence” that Godane was in the convoy, as US officials say, but from a purely military perspective, it may have also been a fortuitous piece of luck that could give tactical advantage to the AMISOM troops advancing on Barawe.
The hope of the AMISOM strategists and their Somali allies is that the death will throw the movement into disarray, disrupt its command and control structure and demoralize its fighters.
The Somali Government held an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and declared a 45-day amnesty for Al-Shabaab combatants who surrender voluntarily in a tactical move designed to weaken Al-Shabaab.
The timing of the amnesty is significant and coincides with the imminent assault on Barawe.
And in the wake of Godane’s death, it is plausible a significant number of Al-Shabaab’s combatants may take up the amnesty offer or choose not to put up resistance.
However, the details and terms of the new amnesty are, so far, vague.
The expectation is that the government will in the coming days flesh the details and craft a comprehensive amnesty package that has all the sufficient safeguards and guarantees to make it adequately attractive to those within Al-Shabaab who may see it as a battlefield ruse.
Godane has in the last few years been steadily tightening his grip over Al-Shabaab by purging the movement of potential rivals and dissidents, prominent among them senior figures such as Hasan Dahir Aweys and Mukhtar Robow.
There are reports, hard to verify, a number of his close hardline allies were in the convoy that was hit with a US hellfire missile.
They are said to include heavyweights such as Mahad Karate, Sheikh Imbil, Sheikh Abdulqadir Ashkar, Maalin Muse Ibrahim and Sheikh Hassan Yakub.
If true, this would certainly be a huge blow for the hardliners and would, in effect, narrow down the list of potential successors.
There has been a great deal of speculation that Mukhtar Robow, a less hardline figure, may use his reputation as one of the movement’s “historic leadership” to seek to replace Godane.
Robow retreated to his home region of Bay after a bitter falling out with Godane in 2012 and has remained quiet, opting to pursue his military and political goals autonomous of the Godane-led Al-Shabaab.
Experts believe he has the gravitas and mass appeal to win over the broad Al-Shabaab constituency and power base, but is likely to face stiff opposition from the powerful core hardline groups loyal to Godane.
But whether he wants to, no one can tell, at this stage, although the assumption of many is that the death of Godane offers him a chance to make a stab for a leadership comeback.
With no clear successor in line, the future of the jihadi group after Godane would be hard to divine.
For a variety of reasons, not least, Godane’s autocratic and brutal style of leadership, the odds seem heavily stacked against a smooth transition of power. But first, someone will have to produce his body.