What changes for al-Shabaab after the death of Godane?

2014-10-08

Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Somali militant Islamist group Harakat Al Shabab Al Mujahidin – commonly known as al-Shabaab – was killed by an American airstrike on 1 September. Godane took over leadership of the group in 2008 after his predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed by a similar airstrike.

Godane tightened his grip by effectively eliminating his rivals in June 2013. These rivals had alleged that Godane had favoured members of his own Isaaq clan, and that al-Shabaab was undermined by his one-man rule.

A harsh and uncompromising figure, Godane had rejected any negotiations with the Somali government and forced the allegiance of al-Shabaab to al-Qaeda in September 2009.

Godane had also overseen a number of attacks outside Somalia’s borders, including a bombing in the Djiboutian capital in 2014, the attack on Westgate Mall in the Kenyan capital in 2013 and a bombing in the Ugandan capital in 2010.

Under Godane’s leadership, al-Shabaab suffered repeated military setbacks following offensives on its bases and sanctuaries by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). It was driven out of Mogadishu in 2011 and subsequently also from large parts of south-central Somalia. The loss of the lucrative port of Kisimayo in 2012 was a particularly severe blow, because it had provided al-Shabaab with an income of US$1 million a month.

Al-Shabaab will remain a major and actual threat in the Horn of Africa

The group had also become organisationally weakened. Godane’s period of leadership saw a continuous struggle for power between moderate and more militant leaders, who had their own networks of fighters and supporters. Different parts of the group hold different views regarding their relationship with al-Qaeda, the role of foreign fighters, civilian casualties and the group’s ideological and strategic direction.

It is against the backdrop of these internal divisions that Godane was replaced by Ahmed Omar Abu Ubeid, who was born in Ethiopia. Although a junior in terms of the group’s power structure, Abu Ubeid was a protégé of Godane and appears to have shared his aspirations. He may thus have enjoyed Godane’s approval as a possible successor. Yet, he has neither his predecessor’s jihadist credentials, nor the strong clan support that some of his current rivals enjoy. For this reason, he is said to have convened an urgent meeting and relieved key commanders of their responsibilities, replacing them with more trusted individuals.

Ideologically, Abu Ubeid will probably not effect a major shift in al-Shabaab’s relations with the Somali government and al-Qaeda. But his new role begs some important questions. Does he have the necessary stature and resolve to assert the same tight grip that Godane had maintained over the group? Will he be able to unite divergent loyalties and forge them into a unified group, focusing on common enemies rather than internal divisions?

Beyond these questions, it remains that Godane’s killing had dealt a major blow to the group. It deprived al-Shabaab not only of its most prominent ideological figurehead, but also of an efficient organiser who had a hand in everything from finances to operational planning. It also demonstrated that al-Shabaab was unable to protect its senior leadership.

So, what will post-Godane al-Shabaab look like?

Ultimately, his death will temporarily undermine the morale of his many fanatical followers who have threatened attacks to avenge his death. Thus, in the short term, there could be retaliatory attacks. In the long term, however, al-Shabaab will remain a major and actual threat in the Horn of Africa, where domestic radicalisation has risen. It may eventually overcome its present difficulties, and carry out more frequent and sophisticated attacks both inside and outside Somalia.

Godane will be remembered as a devoted jihadist and a martyr

Godane’s death will definitely not bring about the end of al-Shabaab. The group will continue to exist, as it is sufficiently entrenched. Godane’s passing will likely also increase his followers’ resolve in fighting to the death. Having embraced a cult of death and martyrdom in line with jihadist ideology, al-Shabaab will survive beyond Ayro and Godane – who are seen to have died a martyr’s death.

The killing of the group’s leader will subsequently cause greater damage psychologically than operationally. Indeed, al-Shabaab’s capacity to plan, finance and carry out attacks will not be completely diminished in the near term. The day-to-day mission on the ground may not be significantly altered, and plans for attacks that have already been set in motion may not be disrupted that easily.

The group will remain a very flexible organisation operating in regional commands and multiple, disparate cells. It will retain its approximately 1 000-strong group of committed core fighters. However, they will continue to be poorly structured, armed and supplied, while being led by field commanders who have neither extensive military knowledge nor long combat experience. For these reasons, al-Shabaab will likely avoid committing forces to direct combat with the vastly superior AMISOM troops.

Yet, al-Shabaab will still have thousands of active supporters willing to offer safe houses and locations for weapon caches. It will also continue to recruit foreign-born Somali and non-Somali individuals from Yemen, Kenya, the United States and Europe, who will serve as fighters, emissaries, financiers and suppliers of weapons.

Even if it loses control over south-central Somalia, al-Shabaab will launch suicide and roadside bombings on AMISOM and Somali government installations in Mogadishu and other towns. It will also carry out targeted killings of military and police officers, religious leaders, prominent businessmen and journalists.

The group will still tax businesses operating in areas under its control and engage in khat drug smuggling. The Somali diaspora in the United States, Norway, Sweden, Canada and the United Arab Emirates will also continue to collect funds and pass them on to al-Shabaab through money-wiring companies.

Finally and most significantly, al-Shabaab will continue to rely heavily on the Amniyat, its much-feared intelligence-gathering unit, which receives the biggest allocation of its funds. This secret unit, made up of hardcore Godane loyalists, will continue to receive preferential treatment from Abu Ubeid, who has served as its coordinator. It will also continue to obtain timely intelligence from agents who infiltrate deep into the Somali government.

Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

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