Last week’s deadly U.S. strike on Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of the Somalia-based Islamist militant group al Shabab, could be the group’s undoing. Although the organization was quick to name a successor, Godane’s death has thrown it into disarray, casting serious doubts on its future. Although that augurs well for Somalia, the region is not out of the woods. Al Shabab’s extremist ideology has already taken root across East Africa. Without further action against al Shabab and groups like it, militant Islam will only spread further.
For years, al Shabab was guided by a small council of leaders who formed the group’s strategy and appointed its emir. That started to change with Godane, also known as Abu Zubayr, who was chosen as the top leader in 2008. He ruled the militant group like a dictator, marginalizing the council, crushing internal dissent, and even killing rivals.
In the process of consolidating power, Godane created the Amniyat, a trusted group of hardcore loyalists whose tasks varied from assassinating dissenters to directing high-profile attacks on Somali government installations, allied troops, and foreign targets. He made particular use of this much-feared force during a bitter struggle with other top al Shabab leaders, which played out on social media in 2012 and 2013. Amniyat forces conducted a series of mafia-style executions of nearly all of Godane’s critics, including Ibrahim al-Afghani, the co-founder of al Shabab, a man who would have been an ideal successor. Eventually, Godane’s growing authoritarianism embittered nearly all the other senior leaders — or, at least the ones who were still alive. And by fall of last year, Godane was alone at the top with no potential deputy or successor in sight.
With the head of this autocracy now dead, and other senior leaders either marginalized, arrested, in hiding, or executed, the chances that al Shabab will live on as a cohesive force are marginal at best.
With the head of this autocracy now dead, and other senior leaders either marginalized, arrested, in hiding, or executed, the chances that al Shabab will live on as a cohesive force are marginal at best. The chosen successor, Ahmed Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah, is essentially unknown and is unlikely to possess the charisma, strategic intelligence, or rhetorical ability needed to bind the fractious group. The deceased leader possessed all these qualities and was adulated by many. His frequent audio and written messages, which made use of poetry and inspirational religious verses, went a long way toward keeping all al Shabab members, with their varying backgrounds and outlooks on jihad, in line and fighting together.
These are dark days for al Shabab on another front as well. Still recovering from major territorial losses in Somalia over the past two years, al Shabab now faces Operation Indian Ocean, a new ground offensive of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The offensive aims to deprive the militant group of its main financing streams, in particular the illicit coal trade, and access to key ports. Although previous AMISOM offensives have proven lackluster, Operation Indian Ocean has a qualitatively different feel, with more advanced planning and tighter coordination with the United States and others. In only a few weeks since the operation began, AMISOM has already pushed al Shabab back on a number of fronts.
Understanding, perhaps, that al Shabab is on the ropes, the day after the missile strike killed Godane, Mogadishu declared a 45-day amnesty for al Shabab members willing to surrender. It has made a number of similar offers in the past, with mixed results. But with continuing losses on the battlefield, a new AMISON offensive, shrinking finances, and now the death of their charismatic leader, the calculations among the rank-and-file are likely to rapidly change. Although some might surrender, many others will melt into the population undetected.
Of course, desperation can lead to more violence: In the past few months, al Shabab has staged a number of spectacular attacks, including suicide commando raids on Somalia’s parliament, presidential palace, and intelligence ministry. With Godane dead, Ahmed Umar will undoubtedly look to prove the skeptics wrong and unleash a series of attacks against the government in Mogadishu. But at this point, the real question is how long he and his remaining loyalists will be able to sustain the onslaught before their group meets its ultimate fate.
Al Shabab’s demise would be a good thing, of course, but it would not necessarily spell the end of terrorism in the region. Al Shabab’s extremist ideology has been steadily gaining ground in surrounding countries, and little has been done to address the problem. Facing a lack of opportunity, corrupt governments, and religious and ethnic marginalization, susceptible East Africans have had few reasons not to adopt extremist views.
The problem is nowhere more apparent than in Somalia’s neighbor Kenya. For years, al Shabab has been working to create a permanent foothold there, and thus far, the government has proved its own worst enemy in attempting to reverse this trend. Security forces’ blatant targeting of Muslims and brutal tactics have created inroads for extremism in communities that feel abused and fearful of their government. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, of Kenyans have been recruited by al Shabaab over the years. Al Shabab’s continued attacks in the country have also successfully pitted Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta against his rival Raila Odingain a game of political brinkmanship that could plunge Kenya into ethnic conflict — exactly the kind of toxic environment in which a group like al Shabab can thrive.
Extremist groups have also been making steady advances in Tanzania. Islamists have seized on the simmering issue of Zanzibar’s independence and successfully hardened perceptions that Muslims are a beleaguered minority on the mainland. Bombings and acid attacks are becoming more common events, and a few startling incidents, such as the discovery of an al Shabab training camp in Mtwara, suggest Tanzania may soon share Kenya’s troubles. The list does not end there: Al Shabab-related activity is also on the rise in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Although Godane’s death has destabilized al Shabab and associated groups in the immediate future, in the long run, it may increase the extremist threat in East Africa. Without Godane’s direction, it would not be surprising if extremists across the region start looking elsewhere for inspiration and guidance. There is no extremist group with more power and allure at the moment than the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State). Its military successes in Iraq and Syria and its realization of a caliphate have created a compelling model of jihad for Sunnis around the world. Inspired by ISIS, East African jihadists could step up violence in the region, potentially trying to create a caliphate of their own, much like the Nigeria-based Boko Haram did last month.
Regional leaders have finally (although belatedly) recognized the need to act. Intelligence chiefs from across the continent met in Nairobi on August 25 and declared that terrorism is the greatest threat facing Africa and can only be countered if politicians rid their countries of corruption, marginalization, poverty and unemploytment. At an East Africa police chiefs conference two days later, Kenyatta declared that terrorism could only be defeated if countries worked in unison. These meetings are encouraging, but follow-through is critical. For a guide, leaders should look to the three-fold approach in Somalia: eliminating leaders; depriving combatants of operational space and funds; and bringing disaffected individuals into the governmental fold.
Godane’s death provides a unique opportunity for allied forces to press the advantage against al Shabab and potentially deliver a decisive blow. It gives East African governments a window of time to implement new policies to address the core reasons behind radicalization. And that is what they must do. If not, al Shabab may die but militant Islam will live on.
By Paul Hidalgo, Foreign Affairs
Picture credit: Foreign Affairs, (Feisal Omar / Courtesy Reuters)