The United States military on Tuesday confirmed that it carried out air strikes in Somalia, which targeted the leader of al-Shabaab.
On Wednesday, a US security source reported that the death of the leader of al-Shabaab in a US air strike carried out Monday night is a “very strong probability,” however still unconfirmed. According to the source, “there is a very strong probability that he is dead…. This requires verification on the ground, which is not simple.” A senior Somali security official has echoed this comment, stating “we believe that the Shabaab leader is dead, though we don’t have his body. Most probably he is dead.” The source further indicated that he believes that al-Shabaab is currently “talking about a successor” however Somali security officials are “…still assessing the situation.”
On Tuesday, officials at the Pentagon confirmed the operation, which was carried out by US Special Forces using manned and unmanned aircraft, however they noted that it remained unclear whether al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was hit. Abdukadir Mohamed Nur, governor of southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region confirmed, “the Americans carried out a major air strike targeting a gathering by senior al-Shabaab officials, including their leader….” According to Mr Nur, although al-Shabaab fighters had largely fled the area in the face of the AMISOM offensive that began Friday, the US airstrikes targeted al-Shabaab commanders as they gathered for a meeting “…to discuss the current offensive in the region.” A spokesman for al-Shabaab has disclosed that Godane was in one of two vehicles hit by the US military strikes. While the spokesman confirmed that six of the group’s fighters were killed in the attack, which occurred 240 km (150 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, he did not confirm whether Godane was among those killed. According to Abu Mohammed, the group’s leader had been travelling in the convoy, which was on its way to the costal town of Barawe, however he has refused to confirm whether Godane was among the victims.
On Monday, local citizens reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing black smoke rise from the area of the attack. Others have reported that there was a brief exchange of fire that occurred immediately after the explosions took place. Local residents also reported that shortly after the US strikes, a number of masked Islamic militants arrested dozens of people who they suspected of spying for the US, and searched a number of nearby homes.
Monday’s attack came just hours after a senior US army commander visited Mogadishu, where he held talks with Somali military chiefs. It also comes at a time when African Union (AU) troops and Somali government forces have launched new operations to push al-Shabaab out of the remaining areas they control. Sources have indicated that the troops are now closing in on the coastal city of Barawe, which has been the main stronghold of al-Shabaab since they were driven out of Kismayo in 2012. The US strikes also come just one day after al-Shabaab attacked a detention centre in Mogadishu in an apparent effort to free other militants detained there.
If Godane has been killed, his death will likely deal a significant blow to the militant group. According to Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, Godane has no heir apparent and his death would be a “significant blow” to al-Shabaab’s organization and abilities. Some however believe that Godane’s death could also lead to a complete shift in the group’s ideology, noting that they may abandon its association al-Qaeda and align itself with another terrorist group in a bid to garner more international attention. While last September, al-Shabaab gained international notoriety after its militants attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people, in recent months, the militant group’s activities have largely been overshadowed by those carried out by Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. With the death of Godane, some commanders may look towards putting in place a new leader that will garner momentum and international attention for the militant group. There are also reports of a rift within al-Shabaab over which global terror group to align with. Godane’s death, if confirmed, could lead to further splits within the group.
Godane, 37, was reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban and took over the leadership of al-Shabaab in 2008 after then chief Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a US missile attack. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has recognized Godane as the head of the “mujahedeen” in East Africa, however letters released after Osama Bin Laden’s death have indicated that the Islamist leader had a lower regard for al-Shabaab’s capabilities. Godane is one of the US State Department’s most wanted men, with a US $7 million (£4.2 million) reward for his capture.
In recent years, the US has carried out a number of air strikes in Somalia, targeting those areas controlled by the militant group. In January, a missile strike killed a high-ranking intelligence officer for al-Shabaab while last October, a vehicle carrying senior members of the group was hit in a US attack that killed al-Shabaab’s top explosives expert.
In a new video made public on Sunday, Boko Haram’s leader has claimed to have created an Islamic caliphate in a northeastern Nigerian town that was seized by the militant group earlier this month. While the declaration is in line with the militant group’s desire of carving out an Islamic state in Nigeria, the timing of the announcement was likely prompted by the recent attention garnered by Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.
In the new 52-minute video, Abubakar Shekau states “thanks be to Allah who gave victory to our brethren in the town of Gwoza and made it part of the Islamic caliphate,” adding that Gwoza, in Borno state, now has “nothing to do with Nigeria.” Earlier this month, the United Nations humanitarian office (OCHA) confirmed reports that Gwoza was under the control of the rebel group. While Boko Haram is now believed to be in control of other areas near Gwoza, in southern Borno, as well as large swathes of territory in northern Borno state and at least one town in neighboring Yobe state, mapping the precise areas that have fallen under the control of the Islamist militants will be nearly impossible as there are few humanitarian workers on the ground in the northeast, travel to the region remains dangerous and there is poor mobile phone coverage.
Links to IS
Boko Haram’s declaration of a caliphate in Nigeria has drawn comparisons with a similar declaration that was made by IS in June. While Boko Haram desires to create an Islamic state, it is believed that this premature declaration is a move to remain relevant in the region and in competition with IS.
Recent gains achieved by IS likely inspired Shekau’s statement, as the militant group has garnered international headlines in recent months by seizing parts of Iraq and Syria in a brutal onslaught. While global focus had initially been placed on Boko Haram’s widely condemned kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, in recent months, much of that focus has shifted to the territorial ambitions of IS despite Boko Haram continuing to carry out nearly daily attacks in northeastern Nigeria. Furthermore, in the wake of a video released last week depicting the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley, the United States has described IS as the strongest-ever Islamist threat with its “apocalyptic end of days” ideology, a statement that has further taken attention away from the Nigerian-based militant group, which in comparison, is believed to be a modestly-funded uprising that is composed of poor youths with minimal tactical training. Although Boko Haram has carried out a brutal five-year campaign, by evoking a Nigerian caliphate, Shekau is likely attempting to remain relevant and to raise his own profile in the region, rather than submit to like-minded extremists in the Middle East.
While Shekau has on previous occasions expressed support for IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, and has congratulated IS on its advances in Iraq and Syria, this new video shows no indication from Shekau that he was associating himself with Baghdadi. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the two groups have been working together. Instead, it is likely that the Nigerian militant’s latest video is an attempt at reminding regional governments and the West that Boko Haram is as powerful a threat as IS.
Boko Haram’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate is inline with the militant group’s ideology, as it has long voiced a desire to create a strict Islamic state within mainly Muslim northern Nigeria. The timing of the announcement however is directly influenced by IS’ activities. Boko Haram had previously declared that they should overrun the entire country prior to declaring an Islamic republic, a belief that was reflected in the manner in which they expanded their area of activity. In the wake of a state of emergency in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, coupled with the launch of a military offensive, Boko Haram had slowly moved out of the city centers, and into the rural areas of northeastern Nigeria. They have also successfully carried out attacks in Abuja this year and have crossed over the porous border into Cameroon. However in recent weeks, Boko Haram has taken over a number of towns in Borno state, a move that demonstrates a shift from hit-and-run tactics to an apparent holding strategy. It is likely that after watching IS’ gains in Iraq and Syria, and the impact this has had on the group’s global attention, Boko Haram’s plan of achieving its goal are now taking on a more gradual approach.
What remains evident is that Boko Haram is closely monitoring IS operations, its gains, what impact it has on the global stage and how the militant group may be able to benefit. Boko Haram is likely to continue to mirror IS moves in the coming months, continuing to take over areas of northeastern Nigeria and possibly releasing brutal videos similar to those released by IS.
The battle against ISIS has created strange bedfellows. Most recently, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has joined the fight against the militants. The PKK is formally classified as terrorists due decades of fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdistan. The conflict killed over 40,000 people between 1984 and 2013. Today, the PKK is working on the same side as Turkey to stop the advance of ISIS, while simultaneously lobbying the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The group has claimed their determination to work with other governments and groups to see the elimination of ISIS. One PKK fighter said, “This war will continue until we finish off [ISIS).” Another stated, “ISIS is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere.” The PKK’s role in battling ISIS presents a mixed bag for Turkey and the international community. While the group is still considered a terrorist threat, and the PKK has accused Turkey of funding fighters against the Kurds in Syria; an allegation that the Turkish government denies. Yet, they are the ‘lesser’ threat in the face of ISIS. PKKs efforts have been successful in fending ISIS off from Erbil, and have sent forces to Kirkuk and Jalawla. Their armed sister group, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) have successfully protected their autonomous region in Syria, and assisted in evacuating thousands of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled from ISIS. The evacuees had been trapped out the mountain with minimal food or water, relying on airdrops for supplies. However, PKK members are not fighting for Turkey, Syria, Iran or Iraq; they are fighting for Kurdistan, a state which is seeking autonomy for lands that cross each of these nations. Further, the PKK represents a threat to the existing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is a long time competitor of the PKK. For now, however, Kurdish Peshmerga, under the KDP umbrella, are working with the PKK and national forces against ISIS, which is heavily armed with weapons from abandoned stockpiles in their captured zones. However KDP leaders fear that PKK involvement in engagement against ISIS will hinder opportunities to gain national autonomy in the long run. In the short run, PKK involvement could prevent nations from sending much needed weaponry to the Peshmerga. Turkish officials have resisted addressing the significance of a resurgent PKK, or the possibility that their involvement will reignite tensions in Turkey, or between Turkey and Kurdistan. One official said, “There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic.” Currently the PKK is opting for slowly decreasing national powers in the Kurdish region, eventually gaining their autonomy. Further their actions in the fight against ISIS are perceived to be a push toward persuading the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The EU, for its part, will not act without Turkish approval, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile in Syria, ISIS has clashed with Assad’s forces in Aleppo, and Raqqah. ISIS considers Raqqah the ‘capital’ of their state; weapons confiscated in Iraq have been steadily making their way into the city. Raqaa approximately 25 miles from a Syrian-controlled airbase at al Tabaqa, the last remaining government forces in the ISIS controlled zone. Assad’s military has carried out at least a dozen airstrikes, reportedly killing tens of ISIS fighters, and has also sent reinforcements to al Tabaqa. Analysts have differed as to the size of territory ISIS holds. Some believe ISIS has control of approximately 11,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Belgium. Others believe ISIS has influence in as much as 35,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Jordan. It is believed that 6,300 fighters joined ISIS in July. Among that number, an estimated 5,000 are Syrian, and the remaining are Arab, European, Caucasian, East Asian and Kurdish. It is believed that as many as 1,100 of the 1,300 foreign fighters entered Syria via Turkey. Among ISIS’ most recent recruits, many joined from other radicalised groups such as the al-Qaeda backed Al Nusrah Front, and the Islamic Front. Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and Ansar al Din are fighting a battle on two fronts: they are opposed to ISIS and opposed to Bashar al Assad, and clash with both.