Al-Shabaab boss Ahmed Abdi Godane, who ordered the Westgate mall massacre in Nairobi last year, is believed to have been killed in an American airstrike in Somalia.
Godane, along with six other commanders, is believed to have died on Monday in a hail of Hellfire missiles, which witnesses compared to an earthquake.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told AFP that US special forces launched air strikes targeting a meeting of top Al-Shabaab commanders chaired by Godane.
The meeting is believed to have been taking place in a forest near Sablale district, some 130km south of Mogadishu.
He said there was a “strong probability” that Godane had been killed in the attack.
“US special operations forces using manned and unmanned aircraft destroyed an encampment and a vehicle using several Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions,” Mr Kirby said.
According to a Western security source, who asked not be identified, there was “a very strong probability that he (Godane) is dead.”
“This requires verification on the ground, which is not simple,” the source told AFP.
A senior Somali security official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying that he believed Al-Shabaab was now “talking about a successor” to Godane.
“We believe that the Al-Shabaab leader is dead, though we don’t have his body. Most probably he is dead,” the official said.
WESTGATE MALL ATTACK
Godane, 37, also known as Abu Zubayr, is said to have given his personal backing for the attack on the Westgate Mall in Westlands in which 67 people were killed.
In a statement released shortly after the attacks, Godane warned Kenyans to brace for further attacks unless it withdrew its forces from Somalia.
“The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders,” Al-Shabaab warned on its Twitter account.
Another tweet said: “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land #Westgate.”
The US State Department lists Godane as one of the world’s eight top terror fugitives, with a $7-million (Sh600 million) reward for information on him, the third-highest bounty offered by Washington.
Under Godane’s command, Al-Shabaab also claimed responsibility for the July 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 74 people who were watching a World Cup football match.
Before assuming the leadership of Al-Shabaab in 2008, the Afghanistan and Pakistan-trained Godane once ran a small supermarket in his home region, the northern self-declared nation of Somaliland. He is also reported to have once worked as an accountant for an airline.
Godane is wanted for the 2003 murder of British couple Richard and Enid Eyeington, who were shot dead at the school they taught at in Somaliland.
RADICALISED IN PAKISTAN
Godane, a deceptively bookish man given to reciting poetry, attended school in Sudan and Pakistan where he became radicalised. He fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir before returning to Somalia where he joined the Islamic Courts Union. The union was scattered by Ethiopia, and the extremists in it formed Al-Shabaab.
He took over as leader after Aden Hashi Ayro was killed in a US airstrike on May 8, 2008, and quickly set about assassinating all the other commanders who posed a threat to his position. He also allied Al-Shabaab to al-Qaeda and committed to waging global jihad rather than the previous local focus of establishing a Taleban-style Islamic state.
The militant group has been on the receiving end of attacks from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) operating under Amisom in Southern Somalia in recent months.
Al-Shabaab dismissed reports on Godane’s death.
“We don’t want to comment on this American propaganda that they have killed our leader,” a senior official said.
Westgate was the worst terrorist atrocity in post-1998 Kenya.
Godane ordered, and probably ran, it partly in revenge for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, but also to establish himself and his group as serious players in world terrorism.
As Kenyans reeled with horror at the mowing down of shoppers, including children, Godane taunted them on Twitter: “There is no way that you, the Kenyan public could possibly endure a prolonged war in Somalia and you cannot withstand a war of attrition inside your own country.
So make your choice today and withdraw your forces or be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country, economic downfall and displacement,” he said.