A US air strike in Somalia on Monday night — the first in more than seven months — reportedly killed up to 10 people, including, possibly, Al Shabaab's leader.
American officials did not confirm whether the attack on a forested area 150 miles south of Mogadishu, where Al Shabaab apparently trains its fighters, killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr or Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed.
"We don't know that he's dead. But he was the target," one US official told Reuters. Defense officials did not disclose details, but in an usual move, acknowledged the attack.
"US military forces conducted an operation in Somalia today against the Al Shabaab network. We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Al Shabaab confirmed that Godane was in one of the vehicles struck in the attack, but would also not confirm whether he was killed, the Associated Press reported.
"It's not unusual for the US to be circumspect about whether they've killed their man or not — often all they will have to go in is the view from the camera on the drone and that may not give them much to go on," Jack Serle, a researcher at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's "Covert Drone War" project, told VICE News.
"And it's not unusual for Al Shabaab to equivocate either. We've seen leaders of armed groups, rumored though never confirmed to be long dead, reappear alive and well."
In Somalia, some officials confirmed the news of Godane's death, while others said it was too early to tell.
"So far Godane's death is a strong rumor that may or may not turn to be true. What we know is that the militants were bombarded," a senior intelligence official that only gave his name as Ahmed told Reuters. "However, it is difficult to know how many of them or who particularly died."
Godane's death would be a huge blow for Al Shabaab, which has been battling Somali and African Union forces since losing control of Mogadishu in 2011.
The 37-year-old has been at the helm of the group since 2007, guiding it to the global spotlight by forging an alliance with al Qaeda, and leading it during some of its most notable attacks, including on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013. He was also instrumental in ousting moderate leaders from Al Shabaab, Serle said.
A US military operation in Somalia, targeting a different leader, was carried out in October 2013, but aborted midway after US Navy Seals were met with strong resistance and found that children and women were also in the home they raided. American strikes in January reportedly killed an Al Shabaab intelligence officer.
"The US is heavily involved in Somalia but not in the direct, kinetic fashion we've seen in Yemen and Pakistan. I'd characterize it as more hands-off, supporting proxies in their fight against Al Shabaab rather than getting overly embroiled in the fighting themselves," Serle said.
"I don't think this is the start of a US offensive in Somalia. I think they had a shot at killing a senior Al Shabaab fighter who many seem to have been saying is pivotal in making Shabaab more hard-line, shutting out the moderates."
Al Shabaab's retaliation to the latest attack was swift.
"We can tell that a senior figure from the group was killed due to the way they reacted after the attack, as they have started committing atrocities in the area," Abdikadir Mohamed Nur, governor of Lower Shabelle Region, told the BBC. "They have beheaded some of the people who had mobile phones and arrested many others [accused of spying]."
Al Shabaab militants also went house to house in the district where the attack took place looking for "spies."
"Mass arrests just started, everyone is being detained," Mohamed Ali, a local resident, told the AP. "They even searched nearby jungles and stopped the nomads transporting milk and grass to the towns for questioning."
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