Kenya shopping mall attack: The bookish, ruthless new leader of al-Shabaab with ambitions for global jihad


Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, known as Godane, is bookish, eloquent in both Arabic and Somali, recites poetry and is known to quote from obscure academic journals, analysts say. Yet he trained and fought in Afghanistan for the jihadist cause and has ruthlessly killed most of his rivals to seize control of al-Shabaab, a Somali militia linked to al-Qa’ida that has asserted responsibility for the mall attack.

Al-Shabaab has said the attack was revenge for Kenya sending troops into Somalia. But the carnage had just as much to do with Godane’s desire to make al-Shabaab – and himself – stronger and more relevant in the global jihad against the US and its allies, say analysts.

Late on Wednesday, in an audio posted on a website linked to al-Shabaab, Godane warned Kenyans of more attacks if the government refuses to withdraw its forces.

“There is no way that you, the Kenyan public, could possibly endure a prolonged war in Somalia and you cannot also withstand a war of attrition inside your own country,” he said. “So withdraw all your forces… [or] be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country.”

The siege of the Westgate mall was Godane’s first major cross-border assault since he eliminated key al-Shabaab leaders in the summer and solidified his grip over the militia.

“Godane is clearly positioning himself as the next Anwar al-Awlaki – on top of his game as the head of a local al-Qa’ida affiliate, and with international ambitions,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Mogadishu-based think-tank. He was referring to the Yemeni American preacher who was a key figure in al-Qa’ida’s Yemen branch and was killed in a 2011 US drone strike.

Since 2011, al-Shabaab has lost much territory in Somalia, pushed out of key cities by Western-backed African Union forces and weakened by infighting and loss of funding. An ideological and directional split among the militia’s leaders has pit nationalists, who want the group to remain focused on ousting Somalia’s government, against trans- nationalists such as Godane, who want to pursue a wider jihadist agenda.

Godane has transformed the militia into a more unified and radicalised terrorist force, said J Peter Pham, head of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council. In some ways, the mall attack was an announcement to radical Muslims and the West that a new al-Shabaab had arrived – with Godane in control. “The attack was Godane’s way of solidifying his recent quelling of internal dissent and firmly placing the organisation as a global jihadist entity,” Mr Aynte said.

Al-Shabaab’s larger footprint under Godane comes as al-Qa’ida’s central branch in Pakistan and Afghanistan is increasingly diminished. “For al-Qa’ida central to have more reach, when its assets are diminished, it has to rely more and more on regional affiliates,” said Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group think-tank. “Godane needs the legitimacy al-Qa’ida provides. He doesn’t have the kind of senior authority in the wider jihadi world.” That’s what Godane has craved for years, analysts say.

Godane, thought to be in his mid-30s, is from the city of Hargeisa in the breakaway region of Somaliland. As a child, he attended Islamic school and performed so well that he won a scholarship to study in Sudan. In the 1990s, he earned another scholarship to study in Pakistan. He connected with jihadist circles, analysts say, travelling to Afghanistan to train and fight, as well as to Kashmir, the Himalayan region contested by India and Pakistan.

By 2002, Godane was back in Somalia and had joined the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group that controlled large swaths of southern Somalia. He held senior positions until late 2006, when the transitional government backed by Ethiopian troops drove the Islamists out. Hardliners from the group then formed al-Shabaab, which in Arabic means “the youth”. By 2007, Godane had joined the militia and started to rise up its ranks.

On 2 May 2008, a US Tomahawk cruise missile killed al-Shabaab’s leader, Aden Hashi Ayro. Within months Godane had taken control. In early 2010, he announced that al-Shabaab would formally align with al-Qa’ida.

At the time, al-Shabaab was a large, loosely knit collection of cells. There were many powerful commanders who rivalled Godane in influence and respect – and not everyone agreed with his internationalist vision or tactics.

That and other complaints about strategy and the treatment of foreign fighters prompted al-Shabaab leaders to challenge Godane. But he assassinated or marginalised his rivals; the latest casualty was Omar Shafik Hammami, an American commander from Alabama known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, who was the militia’s chief propagandist. He was killed this month by Godane loyalists.

The complaints about Godane might also help explain why the militants involved in the attack sought to avoid targeting Muslims. Godane, who needs the legitimacy of al-Qa’ida, did not want to anger or alienate radical Muslims or senior jihadists in the terrorist network, according to Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian analyst and an  expert on al-Shabaab.

The siege of the mall also came a few days after al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a guideline for waging jihad, where he instructed fighters not to target Muslims and to take as hostages the citizens of nations that have invaded Muslim countries.

Mr Hansen predicts that Godane will continue to strike at targets in the region but will keep working closely with al-Qa’ida. “And I think al-Qa’ida kind of agrees with this priority,” he said.

© The Washington Post