Al Shabab’s Last Stand?

The Group Will Crumble—but Its Message Will Survive

Somali government soldiers walk near the wreckage of a suicide car bombing in Mogadishu, September 8, 2014. Feisal Omar / Courtesy Reuters

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. The chosen successor, Ahmed Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah,

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