Somalia’s Islamist group Al-Shabaab has named Ahmad Umar as successor to Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a US air strike.
The group announced the move in an online statement, vowing to take revenge for Godane’s death.
Somalia’s authorities earlier put the country on alert for possible retaliatory attacks by Al-Shabaab.
The alert came as the US confirmed the death of Godane in air strikes south of Mogadishu on Monday night.
Little is known about Ahmad Umar, who is also known as Abu Ubaidah.
Abu Mohammed, one of Al-Shabaab’s commanders, said the decision to appoint him was unanimous.
In a statement, Al-Shabaab also warned: “Avenging the death of our scholars and leaders is a binding obligation on our shoulders that we will never relinquish nor forget no matter how long it takes.”
“By the permission of Allah, you will surely taste the bitter consequences of your actions.”
The announcement of the new leader came just minutes after Al-Shabaab themselves confirmed the death of Godane.
The death of Mr Godane, who was deemed too radical even by Osama bin Laden, is also seen as a big blow to Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda by extension.
CLOSURE FOR VICTIMS
President Kenyatta on Saturday said Godane’s death provides a small measure of closure to the victims of the Westgate attack.
“We owe the United States and its soldiers our heartfelt thanks for bringing an end to Godane’s career of death and destruction; and finally allowing us to begin our healing process,” he said. “His death is a stark reminder that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword.”
Godane, unlike Fazul, achieved what his predecessors had struggled to obtain from Al-Qaeda despite pledging allegiance — official recognition.
Before Fazul’s death, Al-Shabaab had been a local terrorist outfit in Somalia whose links to Al-Qaeda were by virtue of foreign jihadists who were sent to the war-ravaged country.
The terror network then operated on two fronts — the East African cell of Al-Qaeda headed by Fazul, and Al-Shabaab, which consisted of locals headed by feuding commanders, something that made it rather fragile.
Godane’s rise began in May 2008 when a US air strike flattened the compound of his predecessor, Aden Hashi Ayro, in Dhusamarreeb.
A few days later, the defunct Shura Council of Al-Shabaab nominated the 31-year-old Godane to succeed Ayro.
So, when Fazul was shot dead in 2011, Godane consolidated power by merging the two outfits and embarked on a killing spree, executing a number of Somali warlords. Within no time, everyone pledged allegiance to him.
He went on to command the foreign fighters and convinced Al-Qaeda that he could represent their interests in East Africa.
That is when Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri officially announced the merger of Al-Shabaab with the global terror network.
Godane was one of the more shrewd and secretive terrorist heads. He always communicated by audio or written messages never via video and rarely, if ever, over the phone.
Indeed, Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda supremo who was killed by US Special Forces in 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, felt that Godane was too radical.
In a letter found in Osama’s compound after his death, he warned Godane against forcing sharia law on Somalia before the population was ready.
“… remain devout, patient, and persistent in upholding the high moral values which were upheld by an “Emir of reconciliation” toward his community … his refusal to burden them with what they cannot handle,” Osama had written to Godane.
He also told him not to harm too many Muslims in his attacks. And Godane appeared to have heeded Osama’s advice.
During the Westgate attack last year, witnesses said the gunmen would let anyone go who recited an Islamic prayer or knew the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s mother.
On that fateful Saturday, at around 11am, four men armed with guns stormed the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and started shooting indiscriminately. When the guns fell silent at the end of the three-day siege, 67 people of several nationalities lay dead.
A few weeks after the attack, US Navy SEALs launched an unsuccessful nocturnal operation in the southern Somali coastal town of Barawe in the hunt for Godane.
“We fought back against the white infidel soldiers with bombs and bullets, and they ran back to their boats,” Al-Shabaab’s military spokesman, Sheikh Abdulaziz Abu Musab, was quoted as saying in Garowe Online.
WIN OVER YOUTH
Writing for the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, Abdi Aynte argues that regional leaders should take advantage of Godane’s death and win over moderate members of Al-Shabaab and youths vulnerable to radicalisation.
“The promise of amnesty to those that renounce violence, combined with clear demonstrable efforts to address the current hopeless situation experienced by so many of the region’s youth, would ensure that the radical remnants of Al-Shabaab are outnumbered and isolated by those willing to compromise,” he said.
Mr Mohamud, the Somali President, on Saturday offered as much. “The (government) is willing to offer amnesty to Al-Shabaab members who reject violence and renounce their links to Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda — but for the next 45 days only,” he said.
“There is work to be done rebuilding Somalia, and the FGS guarantees those who renounce Al-Shabaab a chance to take part in that effort.”
Within Al-Shabaab, Godane was a revered emir, a commander, general, or prince.
All other commanders, including foreign fighters, reported to him, and he personally controlled Amniyat, Al-Shabaab’s ruthless intelligence wing.
The US Government had placed a US $7 million (Sh616 million) bounty on his head.
Early reports emerged on Somali websites, speculating on possible successors, including Ahmed Diriye, Mahad Karate and Sheikh Abdulhaq, figures that are virtually unknown to the larger public.
National Intelligence Services reports released last year blamed Godane for all terrorist attacks that have happened in North Eastern region.
The reports named him alongside Sheikh Abdulrahman Hueifa, then Al-Shabaab Governor of Juba Region, and Sheikh Mohamed Aulyadeen alias Gamadeere.
The death came as the African Union Mission in Somalia launched Operation Indian Ocean to uproot Al-Shabaab from areas that have remained under its command.
“Operation Indian Ocean is clearing out the remaining pockets of Al-Shabaab in the countryside and allowing the population to see good governance in action,” said President Mohamud.
The port of Barawe is one of the remaining strongholds of Al-Shabaab and is a key target of the operation.
A statement by Amisom said the extremists had been removed from towns in Middle Shabelle and Hiiran regions in an offensive that began on August 30. Amisom troops are fighting alongside the Somalia National Army.
Godane’s death comes after one of his key lieutenants, Abdulahi Ali, alias Ante Ante, who once also headed the intelligence wing of Al-Shabaab, was killed in a raid by KDF jets in October last year.
Godane was killed together with his personal assistant Abdi Fatah, alias Ballah, in southern Somalia.
Reports indicate that he was born in 1977 in Somaliland, and sold charcoal in his home city Hargiesa before winning a scholarship to study economics in Pakistan in 1998 or 1999 funded by a Saudi Arabian religious foundation.
Additional reporting by BBC.