WASHINGTON — The Pentagon disclosed Tuesday that it tried to kill the leader of the militant group al-Shabab in an air attack in Somalia, firing several Hellfire missiles and dropping other munitions on a camp on the country’s southern coast.
It was unclear whether the target, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, a commander more widely known as Ahmed Abdi Godane, perished or survived Monday’s drone strike. The operation marked the most aggressive U.S. military operation in Somalia in nearly a year, and came as the Obama administration was already grappling with security crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Special Operations forces launched the attack after obtaining rare “actionable intelligence” on the whereabouts of Mr. Godane, an elusive figure who has survived internal and external threats since taking control of al-Shabab in 2007.
Adm. Kirby said U.S. drones and other aircraft destroyed a suspected al-Shabab compound, as well as a vehicle nearby. In a departure from the Pentagon’s usual reluctance to discuss drone operations, he bluntly acknowledged that the intent was to kill Mr. Godane, the suspected mastermind of numerous attacks in the region, including the deaths of dozens of people at a Kenyan shopping mall last year.
“The principal target was Mr. Godane,” Adm. Kirby said. The military, he added, was still assessing the aftermath of the attack and whether it had been successful. But he said Mr. Godane’s death would be “a very significant blow to their network, to their organization and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks.”
Al-Shabab, which means “the Youth” in Arabic, is a jihadist movement affiliated with al-Qaida. Born in Somalia, a chronically unstable country on the Horn of Africa, it has transformed itself from a domestic insurgency into a regional terrorist group that has also carried out attacks in Kenya and Uganda. The network also has cooperated with al-Qaida’s franchise in Yemen.
Although Mr. Godane has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida, U.S. counterterrorism officials have been divided over how much of a direct threat al-Shabab poses to the United States. At a Pentagon news conference, Adm. Kirby said the group represented a broad threat beyond Somalia and asserted that it had targeted U.S. personnel in East Africa.
An al-Shabab spokesman told the Associated Press that Mr. Godane was present at the scene of the strike but would not elaborate on his fate. Pentagon officials said they would be cautious before drawing any definitive conclusions. Several al-Qaida leaders have been reported killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, only to resurface later on, very much alive.
Somali officials said the strike occurred near the port city of Barawe. Adm. Kirby would not identify what specific types of aircraft took part in the operation, but said no U.S. forces were on the ground.
Hussein Mahmoud Sheikh-Ali, the senior counterterrorism adviser for Somalia’s federal government, said Mr. Godane had tried to position himself as a key leader within the broader al-Qaida movement and would be difficult for al-Shabab to replace.
Mr. Sheikh-Ali said the Somali government was likewise still trying to confirm Mr. Godane’s fate. If he is dead, Mr. Sheikh-Ali said, Somalia’s government would move quickly to reach out to less hard-line al-Shabab figures in an attempt to reconcile with some factions of the movement. “His killing would be a game-changer,” he said. “They’re going to struggle, and there’s going to be huge opportunity for the government to take advantage.”
Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on African security at the Atlantic Council, said Mr. Godane was less an ideologue than a fighter, but that “nobody really knows” whether he posed the same kind of direct threat as other al-Qaida affiliates. “He’s pretty much a hired gun,” she said. “If he thought there was power and glory in it, he’d probably kill his mother.”
If Mr. Godane turns out to be dead, Ms. Bruton said, his rivals may seek to reshape al-Shabab back into a domestic insurgency. The movement, she said, has lost popular support in Somalia because of its brutal tactics and its embrace of foreign fighters.
The U.S. military frequently conducts drone surveillance flights over Somalia, but airstrikes and ground raids are relatively uncommon.
The Pentagon last October quietly deployed a small team of advisers to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, to coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from al-Shabab. The deployment marked the first time regular U.S. troops have been stationed in the war-ravaged country since 1993, when two helicopters were shot down and 18 Americans were killed in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster.United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Mogadishu - Somalia - East Africa - Africa - Somalia government - Al-Shabaab - District of Columbia - U.S. Department of Defense - Yemen - Al-Qaida - U.S. Navy SEALs - U.S. Navy - John Kirby