The leader of Somalia’s Shabaab rebels Ahmed Abdi Godane, declared dead by the United States after an air strike earlier this week, was a ruthless kingpin of Al-Qaeda’s main African affiliate.
On Monday night, US forces—acting on a tip-off—pummelled a suspected Shabaab convoy with “several Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions.” After several days of uncertainty, the White House and Pentagon said Godane was confirmed dead. (Read: ‘DNA tests on body thought to be of Somalia terror chief’ Godane, says African Union)
Under pressure in Somalia from the African Union’s 22,000-strong AMISOM force and having lost a string of key towns in the past three years, Godane shifted the Shabaab’s focus from a previous mainly nationalist Islamist agenda to one espousing global jihad.
Godane, 37, claimed responsibility for the July 2010 bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala that killed 74 people, and was also believed to have masterminded the September 2013 massacre in the Kenyan capital’s Westgate mall, a four-day seige in which at least 67 people were killed.
After the Westgate siege, the Shabaab vowed to bring “rivers of blood” and “unprecedented levels of insecurity, bloodshed and destruction” to Kenya, a contributor to AMISOM, the African Union force fighting the militants.
Inside chronically-unstable Somalia, his suicide commandos staged brazen attacks against the heart of the country’s fragile, internationally-backed government, including at the presidential palace, parliament, a United Nations base and, last week, the intelligence headquarters.
The US State Department listed Godane as one of the world’s eight top terror fugitives, with a $7-million reward for information on him, the third-highest level of bounty offered by Washington.
Security experts say Godane acted as both a spiritual “emir” and tactical head of the loose-knit Al Shabaab forces, underscoring why he was a priority target of drone and air strikes and special forces operations.
Key commanders—and potential rivals—have also been eliminated, with Godane leading a series of purges of those deemed ideologically too soft. (Read: If Shabaab chief Godane is dead, East Africa and the Horn should prepare for the worst)
After killing at least two top commanders last year, the camera-shy, slightly built and soft-spoken, Godane tightened control over the Shabaab’s most shadowy and feared wing, the clandestine internal secret service known as “Amniyat”.
Reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, Godane—often known by the name Abu Zubayr—once ran a small supermarket in his home region, the northern self-declared nation of Somaliland.
He is also reported to have once worked as an accountant for an airline company.
Lower regard for Godane
He took over the leadership of the Shabaab in 2008 after then leader Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile attack.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri 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.
Educated at an Islamic school in Pakistan, Godane was reputed to enjoy reading, listening to and reciting Somali poetry, especially those verses that chronicle resistance to British and Italian colonial rule.
Rather than leading troops in the field, Godane often communicated through audio recordings, a leadership style that garnered little respect from some frontline fighters.
Wanted in his homeland Somaliland for murder and an attempted bombing, Godane listed the 19th century anti-British colonial fighter Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, branded the “Mad Mullah” by Britain, as a role model.
Godane was also wanted for the 2003 murder of British couple Richard and Enid Eyeington, who were shot dead at the school they taught at in Somaliland.
Analysts say it will be hard to divine the group’s future with no clear successor, but Somali authorities say they are braced for a wave of retaliatory attacks.