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.
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.
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.