A hail of US missiles aimed at the leader of Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants may have left a gaping hole in the group’s leadership, and potentially the biggest challenge to its unity since it emerged as a fighting force eight years ago.
Washington said it was still checking to see whether its laser-guided attack on Monday killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, who aligned al-Shabaab with al-Qa’ida and authorised the group’s deadly raid on a Nairobi shopping mall last year.
A US government source said that it is looking into a tweet from what it believed was a legitimate al-Shabaab account confirming the death.
If confirmed, experts say there is a real chance the death of the man who ruled the group with an iron fist and left no obvious successors would trigger infighting or the formation of smaller, potentially more dangerous splinter movements.
“If... he is in fact dead, it is a game changer in many ways for al-Shabaab,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
“What is likely to happen is a struggle for power,” he said. Fragmentation was also possible in the absence of a leader with Godane’s experience and ruthless approach to dissent.
In 2008, Godane’s predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed in a similar US raid.
“This is a strategic ideology which cannot be destroyed by the elimination of an individual,” said Hussein Biihi, an elder in the Lower Shabelle region south of Mogadishu, where al-Shabaab remain a potent force despite a military offensive by African and Somali troops to recapture towns and territory.
But a new leader may not emerge so swiftly this time.
That is partly because Godane scrapped the shura council which picked him, seeing it as an apparent threat. Using tactics more akin to an African warlord, he also killed rivals or dissenting voices.
“There is not a clear, designated crown prince inside al-Shabaab,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian expert who has written a book on African jihadists, saying Godane’s “solo game” has made the group’s task of finding a new leader more difficult.
“If [Godane] is dead, that is serious for al-Shabaab, partly because of his leadership structure,” he said.