Two days before gunmen launched their deadly raid on the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, killing at least 68 and wounding nearly 200, the Al-Shabab leader who dispatched them was denounced by a prominent member of the Somali-based militant group as too ruthless and power hungry—even for him.
On Somali websites, former Al-Shabab deputy leader Abu Mansur condemned the 36-year-old Ahmed Abdi Godane for organizing the fratricidal killing of two co-founders of the group earlier this summer.
Those killings were part of a vicious power struggle over ideological direction and leadership that Godane has waged mercilessly—even slaying longtime friends—in his relentless effort to transform Al-Shabab from a loosely organized, clan-based hardline Islamist militancy focused on Somalia to an al Qaeda–affiliated enterprise with transnational ambitions, including unleashing an attack on American soil, say analysts.
“He refused to listen to us and is interested in nothing else but power,” cautioned Abu Mansur, who described how Godane loyalists gunned down Ibrahim Afghani and Moallim Burhan, riddling them with bullets in “a big crime against the blood of our brothers.”
Abu Mansur, now in hiding in south Somalia, isn’t the first to have rejected Godane because of bloodlust and ruthlessness. They were even too much for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who decided to keep the Somali at arm’s length, rebuffing his repeated requests for a merger between their groups. In a letter retrieved from bin Laden’s Pakistani compound by U.S. Special Forces, dated August 7, 2010, the al Qaeda boss urged his eager supplicant against strong-arming the local population to accept Sharia.
He cautioned him also to avoid harming too many Muslims in attacks on the African Union security mission sent to Somalia to assist the transitional government to try to bring order to the conflict-wracked country. “Remain devout, patient and persistent in upholding high moral values,” bin Laden counseled. Godane’s courting of bin Laden started a year earlier when he released a jihadist video called “At your service, Osama” in which he urged Somalis to follow al Qaeda, vowing “the wars will not end until Islamic Sharia is implemented in all continents in the world.”
Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, has proved to be less choosy, accepting Godane’s pledge of allegiance last year.
With the Nairobi slaughter, Godane, who uses the nom de guerre Mukhtar Abu Zubair, has now climbed to the top ranks of global jihad, a long-cherished goal and one he advanced with suicide bombings in 2010 that butchered 74 people in a blast as they watched the soccer World Cup final in the Ugandan capital Kampala. After that attack Godane warned: “What happened in Kampala was just the beginning.”
Born in 1977 in Somalia’s mountainous northwest in Hargeisa, the country’s second-largest city, little is known of his family background. But he was clearly gifted academically and secured in 1998 a Saudi-funded scholarship to study accountancy in Pakistan.
U.S. intelligence sources say he used his time there to make frequent trips to terror-training camps in Afghanistan before returning to Somalia in late 2001, where he preached at a mosque in Hargeisa and worked for a remittance company suspected of laundering terrorist funds. His first militia activity in Somalia was to help launch the northern-wing of Al-Ittihad al-Islami (Islamic Union), which was responsible for killing an Italian aid worker in 2006. He later went on to join the “Council of Islamic Courts,” a forerunner of Al-Shabab, in the fighting in south Somalia with Ethiopian forces.
There are no known pictures of Godane. There have been unconfirmed reports that a wife and children live in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and that he visited them twice in 2010 using a false Kenyan passport. Former associates who have defected to the Somalia government say he is erudite to the point of reading obscure academic journals and reciting poetry. What has most marked him out though is his determination to secure unquestioned loyalty and control of Al-Shabab—and a readiness to use violence against anyone who opposes the direction he wants the group to follow.
His maneuvering and infighting predates his taking over as Al-Shabab’s emir (leader) on the 2008 cruise-missile death of the group’s previous leader, Aden Hashi Ayro. “Within Al-Shabab’s upper echelon, there have been long-standing disputes and conflicts regarding goals, strategies, and tactics,” according to a study by the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. Some of the disputes are clan based but the biggest has been whether Al-Shabab focuses on Somalia or is part of the global jihad.
With its territorial losses mounting as a result of the intervention in Somalia by Kenya and other African Union member states, infighting within Al-Shabab has mounted and so with it the violence Godane is willing to wield against fellow militants. For that purpose he has built up a praetorian guard within Al-Shabab, an elite unit called Amniyat that not only spies on rival commanders but also carries out assassinations, says Abdirahim Isse Addow, a former member of the Islamic Courts Union. Amniyat members get better pay than other Al-Shabab members, with brides and gifts lavished on them. Foreign fighters train them.
And no jihadist who criticizes Godane is beyond punishment. Eight days before the Nairobi attack, gunmen from Amniyat killed American-born Omar Hammami in a dawn ambush southwest of the capital, Mogadishu. Also known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, Hammami, who grew up in Alabama, had criticized Godane for being too brutal toward Muslims.
Godane rejects the idea of Al-Shabab negotiating with the Somali federal government, an “apostate government” he dubs it. “We tell the mujahedin to not trust [negotiations], and they should know that it is the path which led those whom they are fighting today to apostasy,” he said in one audio message posted online, his preferred method of communication with Al-Shabab followers.