al-Shabaab after Godane

Cover Story

The confirmation of the death of Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, by the United States Department of Defence immediately prompted speculation that the group’s reign of terror in Somalia and the surrounding region may be drawing to a close as a result of this loss. On the contrary, there are many indications that the death of Godane and the appointment of Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah as al-Shabaab’s new leader will have the opposite effect – reinvigorating the insurgency, at least in the short run, writes Dr Ashley Neese Bybee, while highlighting the immediate need for the Somali government and international partners to employ a multipronged approach that attacks the group’s operational ability and its leadership

On September 5, the United States Department of Defence confirmed the death of Moktar Ali Zubeyr, otherwise known as Ahmad Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab. Godane’s death immediately prompted speculation that al-Shabaab’s reign of terror in Somalia and the surrounding region may be drawing to a close as a result of this loss. A basic review of the terrorist organisation’s history, however, reveals its resilience when confronted with a change in leadership. If anything, the threat posed by al-Shabaab when Godane took control following the death of Aden Hashi Ayro in 2008 grew significantly, as Godane expanded the group’s traditional sphere of operations beyond Somalia’s borders into the larger East African region. Academic literature also suggests that ‘leadership decapitation’ as a strategy for fighting terrorist groups is only effective when the organisation is hierarchically structured, when the organisation revolves around one singular individual (i.e., a ‘cult of personality’), and when there is no viable successor. Al-Shabaab, like most modern-day Islamic extremist organisations, does not fit any of these criteria.

On the contrary, there are many indications that the death of Godane and the appointment of Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah as al-Shabaab’s new leader will have the opposite effect – reinvigorating the insurgency, at least in the short run. Nonetheless, given al-Shabaab’s perpetually fractious nature, it is doubtful new leadership, no matter how inspired or charismatic, could unite the organisation once and for all. This is why it will be imperative for the Somali government and international partners to employ a multipronged approach that attacks the group’s ability to operate as well as its leadership.

Godane’s Legacy

Godane will be remembered as a draconian, tyrannical leader who did not tolerate dissension within al-Shabaab’s ranks. He is credited with expanding al-Shabaab’s mandate beyond a largely domestic insurgency to international jihad, pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012. This prompted a major purge of the organisation’s top commanders with whom he had ideological differences over the scope of al-Shabaab’s mission. Potential detractors were either killed or escaped into exile. Among them was Muktar Robow, who controlled a large number of al-Shabaab’s most experienced fighters from his Rahanweyn clan. When Robow fled to the Bay and Bakol region where the Rahanweyn are based, Godane lost a significant number of foot soldiers, which was considered to be a significant blow to his force. His extremist ideology also made Godane unpopular with some of the group’s more moderate members, especially when he refused to allow humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis during the East African drought of 2011. Nonetheless, his charisma and violent tactics appealed to many extremists who supported him until his death.

Abu Ubaidah Follows in Godane’s Footsteps

When it announced Abu Ubaidah, one of Godane’s most trusted lieutenants, as its new leader, al-Shabaab also reaffirmed its alliance with al-Qaeda. Almost immediately, 12 civilians were killed in southern Somalia in a suicide bombing that targeted African Union troops. Then, police in Kampala, Uganda, seized ‘substantial amounts of explosives’ and suicide vests in raids on a suspected al-Shabaab cell that was planning an imminent attack, arresting 19 people. The Somali government has also issued warnings that al-Shabaab was planning attacks on schools and medical facilities in retaliation for Godane’s death. Thus, it would appear that the organisation retains significant operational capacity. It is intent on avenging the death of its former leader, calling it ‘a binding obligation on our shoulders that we will never relinquish nor forget, no matter how long it takes.’

Abu Ubaidah is the former leader of the Amniyat, a clandestine and prestigious section in al-Shabaab’s command structure, charged with intelligence gathering, assassinations and bombing missions (including the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last year). This experience, along with his fierce reputation – he is described as ‘a difficult, polarising person who believes in Takfiri ideology,’ a belief system that holds nonbelieving Muslims should be punished – suggests he will employ equally violent tactics as Godane and continue to cultivate ties with global extremist groups.

Multi-Pronged Strategy

The Somali government, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), and the international community are pursuing several different lines of effort to remove the threat posed by al-Shabaab, including an ongoing assault on the group’s territory in Southern Somalia, a 45-day amnesty offered to all moderate members of the group, on going intelligence sharing among partner nations, and a broader fight against violent extremism across the region.

Operation Indian Ocean

Operation Indian Ocean – the joint Somali and AMISOM operation to liberate insurgent-held towns in southern Somalia and cut off al-Shabaab’s access to the key port and economic lifeline of Baraawe – already appears to be delivering some gains. This operation follows previous international efforts to impede al-Shabaab’s ability to finance its operations that have been largely ineffective. Specifically, UN imposed sanctions on the importation of Somali charcoal, a trade that has become al-Shabaab’s most important source of income generating approximately $25 million a year, according to the United Nations (UN). Despite these sanctions, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states have continued to import Somali charcoal due to high demand for acacia charcoal. Prices in the Middle East are now three to four times greater than in Somalia, and the UN estimates Somalia’s charcoal exports have actually risen 140 percent since the ban. Thus, sanctions do not appear to have had the desired effect on al-Shabaab’s finances, although the group recently has been implicated in ivory poaching and sugar smuggling, suggesting it may be seeking to diversify its revenue sources.

Operation Indian Ocean was launched on August 25 and by August 30; forces liberated three important al-Shabaab strongholds of Jalalaqsi, Bulo Marer, and Kurtunwaray. Bulo Marer is a key entry point to Baraawe and a known al-Shabaab recruitment centre and tax-collection point. Liberating these towns is, therefore, considered to be a significant blow, denying al-Shabaab critical recruitment and staging grounds for future attacks. One hopes this momentum will be maintained and the operation will succeed in retaking Baraawe, thus denying al-Shabaab access to this critical port.

Amnesty to Moderates

Another approach being employed by the Somali government is a 45-day amnesty and accompanying nine-month rehabilitation programme offered to al-Shabaab militants if they surrender and disarm. Concurrently, the government urged Muslim scholars and civil society to do their part by encouraging militants to reject the organisation’s violence. According to Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, many militants were coerced into joining the terrorist organisation or compelled to do so out of desperation and the need for money to support their families. According to statements from the prime minister and Ministry of National Security, this appeal to the organisation’s more moderate members is motivating at least 30 al-Shabaab fighters to surrender every day. With a total strength of approximately 7,000, however, surrenders at this rate will have a minimal impact on the group’s ability to operate effectively.

Intelligence Sharing

The operation that killed Godane demonstrated the importance of intelligence sharing. It recently came to light that the intelligence used to target Godane was provided to the US military by its French counterparts. Just as Franco-American military collaboration has been fostered in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, international partners must take advantage of every possible opportunity to leverage the presence and expertise of allies in the East African region.

The Larger Fight Against Violent Extremism

Last, we must view al-Shabaab in the broader context of violent extremist organisations seeking global jihad. Assuming Abu Ubaidah continues to strengthen ties with terrorist groups beyond the East African region, we must plan for the distinct possibility that al-Shabaab will not only deepen its ties with al-Qaeda, but possibly other extremist groups, such as Boko Haram. A new armed group calling itself the Caliphate Soldiers in Algeria has switched allegiance from al-Qaeda to the radical breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is fighting in Syria and Iraq. Given al-Shabaab’s ties with al-Qaeda, it is possible that its fractured structure may also result in some younger members opting for a stronger relationship with ISIS. Continuing to degrade the capabilities of all such terrorist groups and their ability to inspire al-Shabaab will therefore be important.

Despite its many factions and ideological divisions, al-Shabaab has proven to be a resilient organisation in the face of leadership change. The transition from Godane to Abu Ubaidah will be made even smoother by the consistent approach of both men to prioritise global jihad over a localised, national insurgency. Recent events demonstrate that the group’s operational capacity remains strong, though it is hoped that the on-going operation to take back insurgent-held territory in Southern Somalia will degrade this capacity significantly. Nonetheless, terrorist groups and their networks are notoriously adaptive and innovative in the face of adversity. Leadership decapitation must, therefore, be accompanied by actions that erode al-Shabaab’s ability to operate and undermine its popular support. Ultimately, the strong relationships that al-Shabaab is cultivating with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations reminds us that the fight must not be treated as an isolated effort; it must be considered as part of a larger, coordinated effort to counter religious extremism globally.

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