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The death of a brutal terror leader in a U.S. airstrike in Somalia could see a dangerous splintering of his organization and potentially worrying consequences for the United States, according to experts.
Ahmed Godane was the ruthless "emir" of al-Shabab — Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization — for at least six years.
Considered a gifted intellectual and lover of poetry, he maintained a pitiless internal order by killing or banishing any possible leadership challengers. The 37-year-old transformed the group into a force of global jihad, orchestrated its alliance with al-Qaeda in 2012, and continually threatened the U.S. with attacks.
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All considered it was no surprise when a U.S. security source described Godane's death — along with 11 other fighters in a volley of Hellfire missiles — as "a big win" for the U.S. But without Godane's iron rule, analysts say the future of the group’s leadership is far from certain.
And although the terror group on Saturday announced a new leader, Abu Ubeyda Ahmed Omar, an expert told NBC News that he’s likely a figurehead and there are others in the organization that hold far more sway — like Mahad “Karate,” commander of the Amniyat, the group’s internal security network.
“Karate’s command of Amniyat makes him the more powerful and more dangerous,” Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science and al-Shabab expert at Davidson College, told NBC News. “Amniyat’s ability to keep Shabaab intact — in part through fear — will be key in determining whether Shabab stays intact or splinters.”
Under a less-ruthless leader than Godane, the terror group could fragment, causing radicalized Westerners to return home to their home nations such as the United States in a bid to carry out terror attacks, al-Shabab expert Stig Jarle Hansen said.
“This could happen with a weaker leader,” said Hansen, who is an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. "These fighters have been sold a world picture where we [the West] are the enemy and there is a clash of civilizations. That’s what makes them dangerous."
Al-Shabab, which translates as "The Youth," has the broad aim of establishing Islamic law in Somalia. The group counts at least 20 Americans among its thousands of jihadist fighters, with many originating from Minneapolis, Minnesota - home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.
Al-Shabab on Saturday renewed its commitment to terror group al-Qaeda and vowed revenge for the air strike that killed Godane — and said its attacks may not be limited to Somalia. “You will know that we are a people who will take revenge, so wait for our revenge be it close or far,” a spokesman for the group said in a statement posted to an Islamist website.
If al-Shahab’s new leader proves unable to keep a tight grip on the terror group, the risk that the group could fragment and spread to other countries is real — and because the group is divided into two factions, there's no guarantee he'll remain in the post for long, said Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who agrees with the decision to take out Godane. "Sometimes the devil you know is more predictable than the one you don't,” she said.
Godane killed or expelled many of his potential successors in a ruthless purge last year. Several of al-Shabab’s leaders wrote to al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, complaining that Godane was a tyrant, "so in response he killed them," according to Sanok. "Any successor would have not been very vocal."
Even al-Shabab's second in command, Abu Mansur, fell out of favor and was forced to flee back to his clan in southwest Somalia, according to a timeline by the New York-based think tank the Council on Foreign Relations.
The recent disharmony within the organization stemmed from a disagreement about whether to focus on Somalia or carry out attacks on foreign soil. While he straddled both camps, Godane was instrumental in promoting the agenda of international attacks. He reportedly signed off on the four-day attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last year that killed at least 67 people. And in 2010 twin suicide bombings in Uganda's capital Kampala claimed some 70 lives.
"Al Shabab claimed these attacks and Godane would have been behind them," said Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at the Horn of Africa Project of British think tank Chatham House.
Whether al-Shabab’s new leadership stays local or plots attacks in the wider world remains to be seen.
"If you take a more Somalia-focused al-Shabab, it is something the U.S. would prefer," Sanok said. "It would be a lot more manageable."