At the start of a news briefing on Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby gave more details about U.S. strikes in Iraq and Somalia. He said the Pentagon is monitoring reports of the execution of an American journalist by Islamic State militants. (AP)

The Pentagon disclosed Tuesday that it tried to kill the leader of the militant group al-Shabab in an air attack in Somalia, firing several Hellfire missiles and dropping other munitions on a camp on the country’s southern coast.

It was unclear whether the target, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, a commander more widely known as Ahmed Abdi Godane, perished or survived Monday’s drone strike. It was the most aggressive U.S. military operation in Somalia in nearly a year, and it came as the Obama administration was already grappling with security crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Special Operations forces launched the attack after obtaining rare “actionable intelligence” on the whereabouts of Godane, an elusive figure who has survived internal and external threats since taking control of al-Shabab in 2007.

Kirby said U.S. drones and other aircraft destroyed a suspected al-Shabab compound as well as a vehicle nearby. In a departure from the Pentagon’s usual reluctance to discuss drone operations, he bluntly acknowledged that the intent was to kill Godane, the suspected mastermind of numerous attacks in the region, including an assault on a Kenyan shopping mall last year that left dozens of people dead.

“The principal target was Mr. Godane,” Kirby said. The military, he added, was assessing the aftermath of the attack and whether it had been successful. But he said Godane’s death would be “a very significant blow to their network, to their organization and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks.”

‘History of terrorist attacks’

Al-Shabab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is a jihadist movement affiliated with al-Qaeda. Born in Somalia, a chronically unstable country on the Horn of Africa, it has transformed itself from a domestic insurgency into a regional terrorist group that has also carried out attacks in Kenya and Uganda. The network also has cooperated with al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen.

Although Godane has sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, U.S. counterterrorism officials have been divided over how much of a direct threat al-Shabab poses to the United States. At a Pentagon news conference, Kirby said the group represents a broad threat beyond Somalia and asserted that it has targeted U.S. personnel in East 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,” Kirby said.

A spokesman for al-Shabab told the Associated Press that Godane was present at the scene of the strike but would not elaborate on his fate. Pentagon officials said they would be cautious before drawing any definitive conclusions. Several al-Qaeda leaders have been reported killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, only to resurface later on, very much alive.

Somali officials said the strike took place near the port city of Barawe, an al-Shabab stronghold. Kirby would not identify the specific types of aircraft that took part in the operation but said no U.S. forces were on the ground.

Nearly one year ago, on Oct. 5, Navy SEALs raided a seaside house in Barawe in an attempt to capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a Kenyan native and senior al-Shabab commander. That raid sparked a gunfight but was unsuccessful; U.S. officials said the SEALs withdrew because the risk of harming bystanders had become too great.

The State Department has offered a $7 million reward for information leading to Godane’s arrest. It identifies him as a 37-year-old native of northern Somalia who, among other aliases, goes by the name Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed.

‘A one-man organization’

Counterterrorism officials and analysts said Godane has been a particularly ruthless jihadi leader who has eliminated several rivals within al-Shabab, either by killing them or forcing them to go underground.

Hussein Mahmoud Sheikh-Ali, the senior counterterrorism adviser for Somalia’s government, said Godane is especially ambitious and has tried to position himself as a key leader within the broader al-Qaeda movement. He said it would be difficult for al-Shabab to replace him, simply because he has consolidated so much power and has assassinated so many would-be successors.

“The organization is a one-man organization — Godane and nobody else,” Sheikh-Ali said Tuesday during a visit to the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. Under Godane’s leadership, he added, al-Shabab has “become more efficient and potent in many ways. But on the other hand, they’ve also become more vulnerable.”

Among those reportedly killed last year after losing power struggles with Godane were Omar Shafik Hammami, an American-born jihadi known for his propaganda rap videos; and the movement’s former deputy leader, Ibrahim al-Afghani.

Sheikh-Ali said that the government of Somalia was likewise trying to confirm Godane’s fate but that if he is dead, it will move quickly to reach out to less-hard-line al-Shabab figures to try to reconcile with some factions of the movement.

“His killing would be a game-changer,” he said. “They’re going to struggle, and there’s going to be huge opportunity for the government to take advantage.”

Bronwyn Bruton, an expert on African security at the Atlantic Council, said that Godane is less an ideologue than a fighter but that “nobody really knows” whether he poses the same kind of direct threat to the United States as other al-Qaeda affiliates.

“He’s pretty much a hired gun,” she said. “If he thought there was power and glory in it, he’d probably kill his mother.”

If Godane does turn out to be dead, Bruton said, his rivals who have been marginalized or in hiding may seek to reshape al-Shabab into a domestic insurgency again. The movement, she said, has lost popular support in Somalia because of its brutal tactics and its embrace of foreign fighters.

“It probably provides an opportunity for the domestic actors to gain ground,” she said.

U.S. operations in Somalia

The U.S. military frequently conducts drone surveillance flights over Somalia, but airstrikes and ground raids are relatively uncommon. The Pentagon has a large drone base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which borders Somalia on the Horn of Africa. The U.S. military also flies surveillance drones over Somalia from a base in Ethi­o­pia.

The Pentagon quietly deployed a small team of advisers to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, last October to coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from al-Shabab.

The deployment marked the first time regular U.S. troops had been stationed in the war-ravaged country since 1993, when two helicopters were shot down and 18 Americans were killed in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster.

U.S. involvement in Somalia has been building steadily in other ways. U.S. commandos have intermittently conducted raids, although the military has kept their activities cloaked in secrecy. The CIA has played a key role, helping to rebuild Somalia’s intelligence service. And the State Department has trained and financed African Union troops who now hold sway in Mogadishu and other parts of the country.