NAIROBI: The leader of Somalia’s Al-Shabab rebels Ahmad Abdi Godane, reportedly targeted in a U.S. airstrike, has overseen the Al-Qaeda-linked group’s growth from local insurgency to major regional guerrilla threat. Under pressure in Somalia from the African Union’s 22,000-strong AMISOM force and having lost a string of key towns in the past three years, Godane has shifted Al-Shabab’s focus from a previous mainly nationalist agenda to one espousing global jihad.
The U.S. State Department lists Godane as one of the world’s eight top terror fugitives, with a $7-million reward for information on him, the third-highest level of bounty offered by Washington.
Godane’s leadership has seen Al-Shabab gunman carrying out high profile attacks, both at home in Somalia as well as 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, parliament, a United Nations base and, last week, the intelligence headquarters.
Godane, 37, claimed responsibility for July 2010 bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala that killed 74 people, and also reportedly oversaw the September 2013 massacre in the Kenyan capital’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 the loose-knit Al-Shabab forces, underscoring why he is a priority target of drone and airstrikes.
Key commanders – and potential rivals – have also been eliminated, with Godane leading a series of purges of those deemed ideologically too soft.
After killing at least two top commanders last year, Godane tightened control over the Al-Shabab’s most shadowy and feared wing, the clandestine internal secret service known as “Amniyat.”
Reportedly trained in Afghanistan with the Taliban, Godane – often known by the name Abu Zubayr – once ran a small supermarket in his home region, the northern self-declared nation of Somaliland.
He is also reported to have once worked as an accountant for an airline company. But he took over the leadership of the Al-Shabab in 2008 after then leader Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by a U.S. missile attack.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri has recognized Godane as the head of the “mujahedeen” in East Africa, although letters released after Osama bin Laden’s death show the late Saudi leader had lower regard for the Somali’s abilities.
The camera-shy fugitive, slightly built and soft-spoken, is not a battlefield commander.
Rather than leading troops in the field, Godane often communicates through audio recordings, a leadership style that garners little respect from some front-line fighters.
Also wanted in his homeland Somaliland for murder and an attempted bombing, Godane lists the 19th century anti-British colonial fighter Sayyed Mohammad Abdul-Hasan, branded the “Mad Mullah” by Britain, as a role model.
Godane is also wanted for the 2003 murder of British couple Richard and Enid Eyeington, who were shot dead at the school they taught at in Somaliland.