US forces have carried out airstrikes against al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, with casualties reported but uncertainty hanging over the fate of the main target, Somali officials said Tuesday (September 2nd).
The Pentagon confirmed the US military carried out an "operation" on Monday against al-Shabaab, and that it was "assessing the results".
"The Americans carried out a major airstrike targeting a gathering by senior al-Shabaab officials, including their leader Abu Zubayr," Lower Shabelle Governer Abdukadir Mohamed Nur said according to AFP.
Godane is also known by the name Abu Mukhtar al-Zubayr, and he is listed by the US State Department as one of the world's eight top terror fugitives, with a $7 million bounty on his head.
Godane has been the target of a number of airstrikes in the past year, including two near-death misses at the hands of the Kenyan and US militaries in January.
Al-Shabaab tight-lipped on fate of leader
In past strikes, whether by sheer luck or tip-offs, Godane reportedly left the target zones just moments before the attacks ensued. This time, he may not have been so fortuitous, although US and Somali officials, as well as al-Shabaab, are remaining tight-lipped on the outcome of the operation for now.
An al-Shabaab official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity dismissed claims of his death as "rumours".
However, al-Shabaab spokesman Abu Mohammed told the Associated Press that Godane was travelling in one of the two vehicles hit by the airstrike on Monday, but it was unclear whether he was among the six militants reportedly killed.
"We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
The airstrike comes days after the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government forces launched "Operation Indian Ocean", a major offensive aimed at seizing key ports from al-Shabaab and cutting off one of their key sources of revenue -- multi-million dollar exports of charcoal.
Al-Shabaab fighters have largely fled in advance of the allied forces, and the Lower Shabelle governor said the airstrike targeted al-Shabaab commanders as they gathered to discuss the operation.
"They were meeting to discuss about the current offensive in the region," Nur said. "There were casualties inflicted on the militants, but we do not have details so far."
Nur said the strike hit an al-Shabaab hideout used as a training camp for suicide bombers in remote villages of Lower Shabelle region, south of the capital Mogadishu.
The airstrike comes a day after al-Shabaab detonated a car bomb outside the National Intelligence Centre in Mogadishu, followed by a gun battle with Somali security forces that left at least seven militants and five others dead.
On Saturday AMISOM announced it launched a renewed offensive against al-Shabaab, saying it had captured the town of Bulomarer, 160 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu. Bulomarer was the scene of an attempted raid by French commandos in January 2013 to free an intelligence agent being held hostage.
AMISOM and Somali government troops were also seen heading towards Barawe, the last major port held by al-Shabaab on Somalia's Indian Ocean coast.
US special forces in October 2013 launched an attack on a house in Barawe targeting a top al-Shabaab commander Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a Kenyan of Somali origin who goes by the alias Ikrima, but were fought off with several US Navy SEALs believed to have been wounded.
Godane's rise to power
Godane, 37, who reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, took over the leadership of al-Shabaab in 2008 after then chief Aden Hashi Farah Ayro was killed by a US missile strike.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognised Godane as the head of the "mujahedeen" in East Africa, although letters released after Osama bin Laden's death show he had lower regard for Godane's abilities.
Godane's leadership has come under fire by his own men in recent years, creating a deep rift between various factions of al-Shabaab, which Godane has dealt with by reportedly ordering the execution of dissenters.
After killing at least two top commanders last year, Godane used al-Shabaab's clandestine internal secret service known as "Amniyat" to further tighten control on the militant group's members.
Nonetheless, under Godane's leadership, al-Shabaab gunmen have carried out a number of high profile attacks, both at home in Somalia as well as in Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda -- all nations contributing troops to AMISOM.
Inside Somalia, suicide commandos have staged brazen attacks in the heart of government, including at the presidential palace known as Villa Somalia, parliament, a United Nations base, Mogadishu's main court complex and, on Sunday (August 31st), the intelligence headquarters.
Godane also claimed responsibility for July 2010 bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala that killed 74 people, and also reportedly oversaw the September 2013 massacre in Nairobi's Westgate mall, a four-day siege in which at least 67 people were killed.
Security experts say Godane acts as both a spiritual "emir" and tactical head of al-Shabaab forces, underscoring why he is a priority target of drone and airstrikes.