Somalia’s government warned Saturday of a wave of retaliatory attacks by the country’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels after their leader was confirmed to have been killed in a US air strike.
The Horn of Africa nation’s president also offered Shebab fighters a chance to lay down their arms and seize on a 45-day amnesty, telling them government troops and the African Union’s AMISOM force were on the brink of overrunning their territory.
On Friday the Pentagon confirmed that Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s main affiliate in Africa, perished in a Monday attack in which US drones and manned aircraft rained Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs on a gathering of Shebab commanders.
There was no comment from the Shebab, who throughout the week have refused to confirm or deny reports of Godance’s death. Somalia’s national security minister, however, said he believed they were now bent on revenge.
“Security agencies have obtained information indicating that Al-Shebab is now planning to carry out desperate attacks against medical facilities, education centres and other government facilities,” Kalif Ahmed Ereg told reporters.
“The security forces are ready to counter their attacks and we call on people to help the security forces in standing against violent acts,” he said, adding nevertheless that “we congratulate the Somali people” on Godane’s death.
Godane has been fighting to overthrow the war-torn country’s internationally-backed government, carrying out a wave of suicide bombings, brazen commando attacks, assassinations and kidnappings.
Godane, 37, who reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, had also overseen the group’s transformation from local insurgency to major regional guerrilla threat, widening the group’s reach with attacks in countries that contribute to AMISOM.
He claimed responsibility for the July 2010 bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala that killed 74 people, and the group also claimed the September 2013 massacre in the Kenyan capital’s Westgate mall, a four-day seige in which at least 67 people were killed.
Reacting to Godane’s death, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta offered his “heartfelt thanks” to the United States for “finally allowing us to begin our healing process”. He said the operation had provided “a small measure of closure” for victims of the Westgate attack.
– ‘Chance to embrace peace’ –
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Godane’s demise represented “a major symbolic and operational loss to the largest Al-Qaeda affiliate in Africa”.
US officials did not specify how Godane’s death was confirmed, but in similar cases in the past, US intelligence agencies have tested DNA samples and used information gleaned from eavesdropping.
The State Department had listed Godane as one of the world’s eight top terror fugitives, and a top US intelligence official said there was no obvious successor in the waiting.
“He was a strong leader of Al-Shebab… and had basically taken care of rivals pretty effectively,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the US National Counter-Terrorism Center.
The group is deeply divided and “there are a number of potential candidates” who could succeed Godane, Olsen told reporters, adding it will be crucial to “keep up the pressure” — with analysts unsure of the group will do next.
“It is too soon to declare the demise of Al-Shebab, but the group will now face difficult decisions about how to replace a brutal but effective leader,” said Joe Temin of the US Institute for Peace.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the death was “a chance for members of Al-Shebab to embrace peace.”
“While an extreme hardcore may fight over the leadership of Al-Shebab, this is a chance for the majority of members to change course and reject Godane’s decision to make them the pawns of an international terror campaign,” he said.
He said the government was “willing to offer amnesty to Al-Shebab members who reject violence and renounce their links to Al-Shebab and Al-Qaeda ? but for the next 45 days only.”
“Those who choose to remain know their fate. Al-Shebab is collapsing,” he asserted.
The strike against Godane came days after African Union troops and Somali government forces launched “Operation Indian Ocean”, a major offensive aimed at seizing key ports from the Shebab and cutting off one of their key sources of revenue: multi-million dollar exports of charcoal.
AU forces are targeting Shebab on several fronts, with Ugandan troops leading the offensives against the main port of Barawe, south of Mogadishu. Ugandan army spokesman Paddy Ankunda also told AFP that his forces had given “the intelligence that enabled the decisive targeting” of Godane.
In Mogadishu, a city struggling to return to normality after decades of civil war, residents said they feared the group may just find a new figurehead and carry on as usual.
“It is like Osama bin Laden, whose death never ended the existence of Al-Qaeda, they will still continue violence and could even become worse,” said Ahmed Moalim Duale, a Somali police officer.
“I think they will face internal conflict for a while,” said Mohamed Abdukadir Dhuhul, another resident. “But in the end they will name another leader like him.”