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



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
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own