While the world was discussing U.S. strikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and debating the merits of action within Syria last week, American officials were apparently planning military action somewhere quite different: Barawe, Somalia.
The target of that attack – a drone strike that took place on Monday – was Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, a man also known as "Godane" and the leader of the militant group al-Shabab. It is currently unclear if Zubeyr was killed, Pentagon sources have told The Post.
Contrasted to Islamic State and other militant groups that have grabbed the headlines recently, Godane and al-Shabab may seem an obscure enemy. But the group is clearly seen as a threat by the United States.
Below, we profile al-Shabab and Godane, and explain why they are a concern to Washington.
Al-Shabab means "the Youth" in Arabic, though the group refers to itself as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM). It was once a part of the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of Sharia courts that had gained control of much of the country in 2006, though other analysts point back further and link its leadership to the al-Qaeda-linked Somali Salafist group Al-Ittihad Al-Islami that fought throughout the 1990s.
After the Council of Islamic Courts was defeated by troops loyal to the Somalia transitional government and Ethiopia in 2007, al Shabab fighters retreated to the country side, where they heeded calls from al-Qaeda to turn to guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings. They became particularly notorious in the West after reports emerged of them stoning school girls, attacking soccer fans and carrying out beheadings. In 2008, the U.S. government designated al-Shabab as a foreign terrorist organization.
While many fighters in the group appear to be motivated by nationalist and local concerns, its believed that many of the group's senior members have links to al-Qaeda and may have fought in Afghanistan. In 2012, the group publicly affiliated itself with al-Qaeda's brand of global jihad, and pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al Shabab has attacked targets outside of Somalia, notably Uganda and Kenya, prompting the latter to militarily intervene in Somalia in 2011. In what was apparently a response to this, on Sept. 21, 2013, gunmen seized control of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, prompting a spectacular standoff that lasted several days and left the mall devastated. Al-Shabab later claimed responsibility for the attack, which caused the deaths of at least 67 people.
Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, believed to be the main target for Monday's strike and better known as "Godane," is said to have been the mastermind of the Kenyan mall attack. Godane had emerged victorious in a power struggle against rival al-Shabab commanders just months before. He had at least four of his rivals killed because they did not favor his more internationalist approach to the group's Jihadist struggle, the Guardian's Simon Tisdall has reported.
Reportedly born in the breakaway state of Somaliland in 1977, Godane was a bright student and earned scholarships to study in Sudan and Pakistan. In a 2013 profile of the al-Shabab leader, The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan reported he was "bookish, eloquent in both Arabic and Somali, recites poetry and is known to quote from obscure academic journals." His time studying wasn't all spent in the library, however – he was believed to have traveled to Afghanistan and possibly received military training there.
Upon his return to Somalia, Godane wound up becoming affiliated with Al-Ittihad Al-Islami, and may have been involved in the murder of a British couple who ran a school in Somalialand. He went on to hold senior positions in Islamic Courts Union, and joined al-Shabab in 2007, eventually becoming its top commander after a U.S. missile strike killed its supreme leader, Aden Hashi Ayro.
The success of the Kenya mall attack brought the group a renewed focus from the West. Less than a month later, the United States mounted a raid on an al-Shabab compound in Barawe, ultimately backing off because too many women and children could have been hurt by the ensuing gunfight. While the stated target of that raid was Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, allegedly the main planner for attacks outside of Somalia, there were suspicions that Godane was the real target.
The State Department currently offers a reward of up to $7 million for information about Godane.
The U.S. role
American intervention in Somalia has a troubled history. In 1993, an attempt by the U.S. military to capture a number of Somali rebel leaders in Mogadishu resulted in two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters being shot down. The ensuing battle between U.S. troops and Somali militia men was dubbed the Battle of Mogadishu and immortalized in the film "Black Hawk Down." The deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis led to a public outcry and for years afterward the United States was said to be more hesitant to intervene abroad.
Over the past few years, however, the United States has quietly expanded its position in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa; it has a major drone base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti that houses 4,000 troops, for example. And while the CIA has maintained a base in Somalia for years, earlier this year a small number of U.S. military personnel were secretly deployed to the country – the first time this has happened since 1993.
Monday's strike may be a reflection that the international global jihad Godane espoused is seen as a clear threat to the United States and its allies in Africa. "This action was taken because of the history of terrorist attacks and violence that this organization is responsible for and continues to be responsible for,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday. The group is said to have attracted a number of young American recruits of Somali origin. Additionally, it may reflect a growing general concern about jihadist groups in Africa: In 2012, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command said that al-Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Boko Haram were attempting to “coordinate and synchronize” their actions.
However, there may also be an element of opportunism to the strike. The Post's Craig Whitlock reports that Godane is said to hold unequaled power within al-Shabab and had killed many of his successors. And unlike in many other parts of the world, drone reconnaissance appears to have provided a good picture of Godane's movements: Al Shabab has confirmed he was in the convoy targeted, but has not said if he is among the dead.