Kenya shopping mall attack: The bookish, ruthless new leader of al-Shabaab with ambitions for global jihad

 

Nairobi

The alleged Somali mastermind of the assault on an upmarket shopping centre that killed scores and jolted Kenya is a man of contradictions.

Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, known as Godane, is bookish, eloquent in both Arabic and Somali, recites poetry and is known to quote from obscure academic journals, analysts say. Yet he trained and fought in Afghanistan for the jihadist cause and has ruthlessly killed most of his rivals to seize control of al-Shabaab, a Somali militia linked to al-Qa’ida that has asserted responsibility for the mall attack.

Al-Shabaab has said the attack was revenge for Kenya sending troops into Somalia. But the carnage had just as much to do with Godane’s desire to make al-Shabaab – and himself – stronger and more relevant in the global jihad against the US and its allies, say analysts.

Late on Wednesday, in an audio posted on a website linked to al-Shabaab, Godane warned Kenyans of more attacks if the government refuses to withdraw its forces.

“There is no way that you, the Kenyan public, could possibly endure a prolonged war in Somalia and you cannot also withstand a war of attrition inside your own country,” he said. “So withdraw all your forces… [or] be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country.”

The siege of the Westgate mall was Godane’s first major cross-border assault since he eliminated key al-Shabaab leaders in the summer and solidified his grip over the militia.

“Godane is clearly positioning himself as the next Anwar al-Awlaki – on top of his game as the head of a local al-Qa’ida affiliate, and with international ambitions,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Mogadishu-based think-tank. He was referring to the Yemeni American preacher who was a key figure in al-Qa’ida’s Yemen branch and was killed in a 2011 US drone strike.

Since 2011, al-Shabaab has lost much territory in Somalia, pushed out of key cities by Western-backed African Union forces and weakened by infighting and loss of funding. An ideological and directional split among the militia’s leaders has pit nationalists, who want the group to remain focused on ousting Somalia’s government, against trans- nationalists such as Godane, who want to pursue a wider jihadist agenda.

Godane has transformed the militia into a more unified and radicalised terrorist force, said J Peter Pham, head of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council. In some ways, the mall attack was an announcement to radical Muslims and the West that a new al-Shabaab had arrived – with Godane in control. “The attack was Godane’s way of solidifying his recent quelling of internal dissent and firmly placing the organisation as a global jihadist entity,” Mr Aynte said.

Al-Shabaab’s larger footprint under Godane comes as al-Qa’ida’s central branch in Pakistan and Afghanistan is increasingly diminished. “For al-Qa’ida central to have more reach, when its assets are diminished, it has to rely more and more on regional affiliates,” said Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group think-tank. “Godane needs the legitimacy al-Qa’ida provides. He doesn’t have the kind of senior authority in the wider jihadi world.” That’s what Godane has craved for years, analysts say.

Godane, thought to be in his mid-30s, is from the city of Hargeisa in the breakaway region of Somaliland. As a child, he attended Islamic school and performed so well that he won a scholarship to study in Sudan. In the 1990s, he earned another scholarship to study in Pakistan. He connected with jihadist circles, analysts say, travelling to Afghanistan to train and fight, as well as to Kashmir, the Himalayan region contested by India and Pakistan.

By 2002, Godane was back in Somalia and had joined the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group that controlled large swaths of southern Somalia. He held senior positions until late 2006, when the transitional government backed by Ethiopian troops drove the Islamists out. Hardliners from the group then formed al-Shabaab, which in Arabic means “the youth”. By 2007, Godane had joined the militia and started to rise up its ranks.

On 2 May 2008, a US Tomahawk cruise missile killed al-Shabaab’s leader, Aden Hashi Ayro. Within months Godane had taken control. In early 2010, he announced that al-Shabaab would formally align with al-Qa’ida.

At the time, al-Shabaab was a large, loosely knit collection of cells. There were many powerful commanders who rivalled Godane in influence and respect – and not everyone agreed with his internationalist vision or tactics.

That and other complaints about strategy and the treatment of foreign fighters prompted al-Shabaab leaders to challenge Godane. But he assassinated or marginalised his rivals; the latest casualty was Omar Shafik Hammami, an American commander from Alabama known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, who was the militia’s chief propagandist. He was killed this month by Godane loyalists.

The complaints about Godane might also help explain why the militants involved in the attack sought to avoid targeting Muslims. Godane, who needs the legitimacy of al-Qa’ida, did not want to anger or alienate radical Muslims or senior jihadists in the terrorist network, according to Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian analyst and an  expert on al-Shabaab.

The siege of the mall also came a few days after al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a guideline for waging jihad, where he instructed fighters not to target Muslims and to take as hostages the citizens of nations that have invaded Muslim countries.

Mr Hansen predicts that Godane will continue to strike at targets in the region but will keep working closely with al-Qa’ida. “And I think al-Qa’ida kind of agrees with this priority,” he said.

© The Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there