Nairobi, Kenya – The killing of Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Somalia’s al-Shabab group – although significant – will not herald the end of East Africa’s most dangerous organisation, said a confidential UN report that also warned of attacks in the region in coming months.
The report, presented to the UN Security Council last month, said it was unlikely that Godane was involved in day-to-day operational decision-making, and commanders with operational responsibility will continue to retain the freedom to implement the “Emir’s intent” – prosecuting attacks in Somalia and in the region.
Godane, also known as Sheikh Muktar Abu Zubeyr, enjoyed the support of a growing number of new recruits in Kenya and Tanzania, said the report by the UN’s monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea.
Its mandate includes reporting on the arms embargo imposed on Somalia in 1992 to stop weapons from flowing to warlords, who a year earlier seized the country after the implosion of the Horn of Africa nation’s central government.
“While the recent removal of Ahmed Godane from the battlefield represents a significant achievement for AMISOM [African Union Mission to Somalia] and the federal government in their efforts to defeat al-Shabab, the departure of such an important figure does not mark the end of al-Shabab or its capabilities,” said the report.
Al-Shabab can continue to exist for years as a guerrilla organisation, increasingly using terror at local and regional levels.
The United States’ September air strike that killed Godane failed “significantly” to diminish al-Shabab’s operational capacity because, the report said, such strikes generally result in only short-term gains as the group’s senior command remains intact and leaders are able to move freely within Somalia.
Al-Shabab, which wants to impose its own strict version of Islam, controlled Mogadishu and the southern region of Somalia from 2006-11. It was driven out of the capital by the AMISOM peacekeeping force deployed by the African Union.
The UN’s latest assessment of the group comes against the backdrop of two successive anti-al-Shabab operations in Somalia, in which that country’s national army backed by the African Union peacekeepers wrested several towns from the hardline fighters, most notably the capture of al-Shabab’s last coastal base of Barawe.
Despite the loss, al-Shabab retains the capacity to strike at will within the “recovered” locations, such as Kismayo, where earlier this year one of its fighters assassinated an intelligence officer with the Jubaland Interim Administration, the report said.
The militants have also succeeded in carrying out a “complex” attack against a makeshift AU base in a town in central Somalia called Bulobarde in March 2014, killing two peacekeepers and a number of national armed forces personnel.
Stig Jarle Hansen, who wrote a book on al-Shabab, told Al Jazeera recent military operations have in fact “weakened” the group, and by 2015 it will suffer many more loses.
“But,” he added, “al-Shabab can continue to exist for years as a guerrilla organisation, increasingly using terror at local and regional level.”
Hansen said one of al-Shabab’s strategies is to wait out AU peacekeepers, whose leaders said would withdraw from Somalia by 2016. After that, he said, the fighters will pounce on the weak Somali government, exactly as they did after the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in 2009.
“The Ethiopians had massive superior military power than al-Shabab,” Hansen said. “But the local Somali government functioned poorly, so when they withdrew, the militants expanded their control drastically, seizing an area the size of Denmark.”
Prolific and effective
The UN report said East Africa – for the first time since the emergence of al-Qaeda in the region in the 1990s – is being besieged by an al-Shabab that is now a more determined, prolific and effective al-Qaeda-affiliated group.
“Al-Shabab has demonstrated its resilience in emerging from a fractious state in late 2012 to mid-2013, caused by leadership and operational disputes, while enduring a series of kinetic counterterrorism campaigns by regional and foreign intelligence services,” said the report.
It said al-Qaeda in East Africa has evolved over the years, and arguably had three generations: From 1991-96, 1996-2002 and from 2002-11.
“The death of Ahmed Godane will not affect the capability of al-Shabab to carry out regional attacks within the coming three to six months, including the ability of the al-Shabab core to instigate and incite regional affiliates,” said the report.
Al-Shabab continues to earn tens of millions of dollars from revenue generated by the lucrative charcoal trade in the country on a scale greater than when in 2011 its fighters ruled the coastal city of Kismayo, through which the bulk of charcoal is being exported to several Gulf states.
The current overall international market value of charcoal exported in 2013-14 is estimated in excess of $250 million, with al-Shabab hauling in about one-third of the profits, said the UN report. It also warned “the unchecked scramble for charcoal revenue” has the potential to stir up historical clan tensions relating to the control of Kismayo, as different tribes are now arming themselves.
Al-Shabab's operational models and tactics, techniques and procedures have always been tried and tested in Somalia before being exported to the region.
The UN report asserted that al-Shabab’s overt regional strategy has relied increasingly on its entrenched support base of intelligence-like operatives – especially in Djibouti and Ethiopia and, to an extent, affiliates such as al-Hijra in Kenya – to conduct attacks in the region.
A four-day siege by al-Shabab gunmen of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall – a prominent upscale shopping centre in the Kenyan capital – killed 67 people in September 2013.
The attack was conceived in Somalia, planned from a United Nations refugee camp, and executed from Nairobi’s Somali-populated Eastleigh district, the UN report said.
The attack “marked a departure from ‘soft targets'” to “complex and spectacular” large-scale attacks beyond Somalia, drawing on, where practical, a combination of al-Hijra resources [in Kenya] at the peripheral level and the operational discipline of al-Shabab core operational success regionally in East Africa”.
The Westgate attack and others that took place in the country have, by mid-2014, created anxiety that eventually led to a number of Western embassies in Kenya to issue travel advisories or relocate some staff to other countries.
“In 2014,” the UN report said, “al-Shabab’s newfound operational tempo in Kenya continued with a series of symbolic attacks and attempted plots, including a partially constructed vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, successfully infiltrated from Somalia.”
Al-Shabab also planted an improvised explosive device inside Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on January 16, 2014.
“Historically,” said the report, “al-Shabab’s operational models and tactics, techniques and procedures have always been tried and tested in Somalia before being exported to the region.”