Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, was ‘the principal target’ of a Monday attack, said Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby. It is not yet known if Godane survived the attack.
*UPDATE at bottom of this article.
by, Dan Friedman | The New York Daily News
WASHINGTON — A U.S. strike may have killed the reviled leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Shabab — dealing a major blow to the Somali terror network, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Defense Department’s chief spokesman, said Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, was “the principal target” of a Monday attack believed to have been launched by U.S. drones and other aircraft.
“This operation was a direct strike against the Al Shabab network, specifically against the group’s leader,” Kirby told reporters. “We are still assessing the results of the operation.”
It’s not clear if Godane, the ringleader of the deadly attack last year on a Kenyan mall, survived the strike.
A spokesman for Al Shabab told The Associated Press that Godane was at the site but would not say if he died or was injured.
In the strike, Hellfire missiles destroyed a suspected Al Shabab compound and one vehicle near the port city of Barawe, a stronghold of the group.
The attack killed at least six members of the terror organization, which wants to impose Sharia law in Somalia — a country left nearly lawless by decades of war and clan-based fighting.
Video courtesy of: PBS News Hour
Somali officials told the AP and other outlets that a drone targeted Godane as he left a meeting with fellow militants.
The State Department had put a $7 million bounty on Godane’s head and considered him one of the world’s most wanted men.
He led the extremist group as it pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and claimed responsibility for the attack on the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi last year that killed at least 67 people.
Kenya had sent troops into Somalia to fight the group, sparking Shabab vows to retaliate.
Terror analysts say Godane is a skilled orator and poetry reader known for his especially brutal acts against both foes and internal rivals.
He organized stonings of teenage girls and public amputations, The New York Times reported.
He is reputed to have participated in the murder of Western aid workers in Somalia and to have overseen plots to target U.S. personnel in East Africa.
Terror analysts say Godane also consolidated power by killing or expelling rivals within Al Shabab.
U.S. officials said his death would significantly weaken the group, which means “the youth” in Arabic.
It would be a “very significant blow to their network, to their organization, and we believe to their ability to conduct terrorist attacks,” Kirby said.
The group, which once controlled the Somali capital of Mogadishu, was pushed out by African forces in 2011. It has since been confined to rural areas of Somalia.
Amid the setbacks, the groups has stepped up terror attacks at home and elsewhere in Africa. On Sunday, seven suspected members of the group died attacking a Mogadishu prison in a bid to free fellow extremists held there.
If Godane is dead, his absence could prompt a power struggle in the group — and could lead it into the arms of ISIS, experts told the AP.
“Advanced splintering seems like a probable outcome,” terrorism analyst J.M. Berger said. “If Shabab ends up exiting Al Qaeda, there will be global implications for that . . . but it’s hard to say right now which way that will go.”
The attack is the latest in a string of U.S. assaults on Al Shabab in recent years, most launched from a large U.S. drone base in Djibouti, which shares a border with Somalia.
Godane took the helm of Al Shabab after a 2008 U.S. air strike killed his predecessor.
The U.S. last year sent a small team of military advisers to Mogadishu to assist African troops fighting the terror group there.
A U.S. strike in January killed a high-ranking intelligence official for the group. Last October, a strike hit a vehicle and killed senior members of the terror outfit including a top explosives expert.
The same month, Navy SEALs raided a seaside house in Barawe in a bid to capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, another top Al Shabab commander.
The raid failed after the SEALs withdrew amid a gunfight they said risked killing innocent bystanders.
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