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Ahmed Abdi Godane: What We Know About U.S. Airstrike Terror Target

Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18Km south of Mogadishu in February 2011. Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP, file

The Somali terror leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, targeted by U.S. airstrikes, has been described as a reclusive and complex character - a gifted orator and poetry enthusiast who has transformed his sect into one of the world’s most feared jihadi organizations.

Godane is the ruthless leader of al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-linked group that took responsibility for the Westgate mall attack in Kenya last year that claimed at least 67 lives.

While al-Shabab would not say whether the 37-year-old was among the six militants killed in a U.S. drone strike on Monday, his death would have a significant impact on the United States and the West.

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"There are many rumors in terms of what we know about Godane, but very few of them we can actually confirm," said Stig Jarle Hansen, an al-Shabab expert at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. "He was already relatively famous in the '90s for being a good orator — there is film of him debating with some the best known clerics in Somalia, and he came off very well."

Godane used his childhood love of reading and writing poetry to weave religious verse into his oratory performances that gained him notoriety in his pre-al-Shabab days, Hansen said.

Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at the Horn of Africa Project of British think tank Chatham House added that Godane "is quite reclusive, but one of the main things we do know is that he is regarded as being very intelligent, particularly in regards to his Islamic studies."

Also known as Moktar Ali Zubeyr, Godane was born in Hargeisa, what is now the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, according to a profile by the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project. He was a gifted student and received a Saudi-backed scholarship to study in Pakistan.

Godane left Pakistan in 1998 and went to fight in Afghanistan, although it is not known exactly for how long. His return to Somalia is equally murky, with rumors of involvement in the illegal charcoal-selling trade.

He earned clout in the group that would become al-Shabab because of his purported role in the murders of several Westerners in Somalia, including British aid workers Dick and Enid Eyeington in 2003 and the Italian nun Leonella Sgorbati in 2006, according to Hansen.

Image: Ahmed Abdi Godane
This undated and unlocated picture provided by US website 'Rewards for Justice' shows Godane. Rewards for Justice via AFP - Getty Images file

Godane was one of al-Shabab's founding members when it formed in 2006 and became its leader — or "emir" — as early as one year later. Favoring the path of global jihad rather than fighting for narrower Somali nationalist interests, he aligned with al Qaeda in 2012. But his leadership was not without challenge.

"Since 2012 several members have come up against him," said Soliman at Chatham House. "These people are no longer with us or are no longer in the group, which tells you something about him."

Under Godane, al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for a string of bombings and shootings, earning it terrorist status from the U.S. State Department in 2008. Godane himself has a bounty of up to $7 million on his head.

The group under his leadership has been more willing to carry out attacks on foreign soil — evidenced in the Westgate attack — and his death would be seen by many as a big win for the West. But Hansen said that with no clear candidates to replace him, it could leave the door open for someone like al-Shabab's terror chief Abdukadir Mohammed Abdukadir, also known as Ikrima, who is credited with planning the attack on the mall in Nairobi.