A hail of U.S. missiles aimed at the leader of Somalia’s al Shabaab militants may have left a gaping hole in the group’s leadership, potentially the biggest challenge to its unity since it emerged as a fighting force eight years ago.
Washington said on Wednesday it was still uncertain whether the laser-guided attack on Monday had killed Ahmed Godane, who aligned al Shabaab with al Qaeda and authorized the group’s deadly raid on a Nairobi shopping mall last year.
A U.S. government source said that a tweet in Arabic from what the United States believed was a legitimate Shabaab account had proclaimed Godane dead, but this was still being assessed for its authenticity. Godane has not appeared in social or other media to prove he was still alive, which some other militants who survived U.S. attacks have done.
Al Shabaab, usually vocal on social media and other channels of communication, has yet to comment. There may be good reason for its silence as it seeks a successor.
With no obvious candidate to replace the man who ruled al Shabaab with an iron fist and killed off many of his rivals, experts say there is a real chance his death would trigger infighting or the formation of smaller, potentially more dangerous splinter movements.
“If it is confirmed that he is in fact dead, it is a game changer in many ways for al Shabaab,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
“What is likely to happen is a struggle for power,” he said. Fragmentation was also possible in the absence of a leader with Godane’s experience and ruthless approach to dissent, he added.
Somalia’s government, with support from African peacekeepers and Western intelligence, has battled to curb al Shabaab’s influence and drive the group from areas it has continued to control since it was expelled from Mogadishu in 2011.
Western governments and neighboring countries want to neutralize a group they say has exploited Somalia’s chaos to train foreign fighters.