Will Somalia's Al Shabab hang together under new leadership?

The US airstrike that killed Ahmed Abdi Godane last week took out the mastermind of last year's Westgate Mall attack. The new leader of the Somali militant group is largely unknown and may struggle to hold it together. 

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/File
In this 2011 file photo, hundreds of newly-trained Al Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area, 12 miles south of Mogadishu, Somalia.

US airstrikes in Somalia that killed the head of Al Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate, Al Shabab, could trigger a collapse of the terror group, analysts say. But in the short term the elimination of Ahmed Abdi Godane raises the risk of major new attacks.

The Pentagon confirmed Friday that Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs had killed Mr. Godane, one of Washington’s eight “world’s most wanted” terror leaders. “Removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to Al Shabab,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Under his guidance, Al Shabab, which started as a Somalia-based group seeking to impose sharia law in Somalia, adopted a more globalist agenda that culminated in the terror siege of a upscale Nairobi shopping mall in 2013.

Now that Godane is dead, opinions are divided on whether his successor, the little-known Sheikh Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaida, will – or even can – continue to lead the group and stage more spectacular terrorist operations.

“Godane’s death leaves Al Shabab exposed and extremely vulnerable, and there is a serious possibility of its gradual disintegration,” says Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank based in Mogadishu.

“He had spent the last three years consolidating his power to such an extent that he eliminated all rivals, and the checks and balances within the organization were completely overruled by his dictatorial tendencies,” he says, adding that the group could splinter into rival factions, mostly with a nationalist rather than internationalist outlook.

US airstrikes in 2008 killed Aden Hashi Ayro, Godane’s immediate predecessor, raising hopes the group would collapse at that time. In fact, the opposite happened. 

A collapse scenario represents an unexpected and significant shift, with implications for security policy across East Africa. In recent years, dozens – perhaps hundreds – of young foreign men have traveled to Somalia to join the group, in part because of a formal affiliation with Al Qaeda that Godane engineered in early 2012.

A group of four men from at least three different countries – Somalia, Norway and Sudan – carried out the Westgate mall attack last September, killing more than 70 people in what remains Al Shabab’s highest profile strike.

Three years earlier, another cell set off simultaneous suicide bombs in two bars in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, killing close to 80 people watching the soccer World Cup final in South Africa.

Intimidation strategy

Dozens of smaller strikes, mostly in Kenya, have since been blamed on Al Shabab. Analysts say Godane’s strategy of staging attacks outside Somalia is designed to intimidate East African peacekeepers, primarily Kenyan. 

Abu Ubaida, Godane’s successor, is weak and carries little influence among the battle-hardened fighters of the Amniyat, Al Shabab’s commando unit.

“I can imagine he is going to want to stamp his authority on the group very soon, to show it is still relevant,” Andrews Atta-Asamoah, regional security analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, who monitors Al Shabab, says.

“That would best be done by going to the Amniyat to ask for a big, spectacular attack, or series of attacks, both in Somalia and in the neighboring countries. The risk of that is very high now.”

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